For GOP freshmen, congressional swearing-in is 'game day'

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 10:15 PM

For some Republican House freshmen, Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony was an odd moment. After winning their races by calling Washington a cesspool, they brought spouses, children, aunts and uncles to watch them officially dive in.

"It feels awkward," said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who used a shovel as his campaign logo because, he said, Washington had surrounded the common man with a "pile of crap." Instead of a grand swearing-in, he said, "we should have a barbecue, and we should be serving people."

Freshman Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.) said he was feeling the weight of the serious problems Republicans had pledged to tackle. During the campaign, he said, GOP candidates were like dogs chasing a bus. "We caught the bus," he said.

For the 82 new GOP lawmakers, outsiders-turned-insiders, a difficult balancing act began Wednesday. They railed against Washington, but now they are Washington. Yet although they despise much about the place, some said that the excitement of their first day - surrounded by marble columns, police escorts and families dressed in Sunday best - was undeniable.

"I didn't sleep last night," Gosar said. "I woke up at 1, 2, 3."

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) had buffed his own shoes to a high shine. "There's a lot of things that are broken" in Congress, he said. "But overall, it's a wonderful institution. It has tremendous history."

"It's game day," he said. "I'm tired of sitting on the sidelines."

The freshmen are still new enough not to know Hill lingo - the cloakroom, a party command center off the House floor, became "the cloak." Statuary Hall, the grand chamber full of sculptures of prominent Americans, was "Statutory Hall."

Gosar said that one of the hardest things about becoming a congressman was remembering not to call other lawmakers "congressman." He said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told him, "It's Mike now."

But on Wednesday, the freshmen were the stars.

Their days began with receptions in their offices, as family members and supporters filed in to shake hands and take smartphone pictures of the plaques with the new legislators' names.

At 11:45 a.m., with crowds milling in their offices, the new members heard the first buzz of an alarm calling them to the House chamber. They walked down, trailed by entourages of children and relatives, making that first historic walk to the Capitol.

Then they ran smack into a huge line. Metal detectors.

"Spouses and members go through!" shouted Capitol Police Officer Anthony Cianciolo, trying to create order in the mob waiting to be screened in a basement tunnel. "Everybody else in line to the right!"

Someone in the line called Cianciolo over. The question was obvious: We're with somebody important - do we have to wait in this line, too?

They did.

"Everybody's somebody today!" Cianciolo said. And they all had to wait in line.

A few minutes later, in the House chamber, the new Republicans showed each other how to operate the House's electronic voting system. They punched the buttons, then craned their necks to read the giant roster of members projected onto the House's back wall.

Next to their name, a yellow "P" appeared. They were officially present.

"I got to open up that door and step on that floor," said new Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.). She stopped, remembering it a few minutes later - thinking about how few women had walked on the House floor as legislators - and took in a deep breath.

Was all this happiness wrong, for people who campaigned against Washington?

"Well, somebody's got to do it," Herrera Beutler said. "Do you remember your high school graduation? . . . The really important part of the ceremony is what's going to happen afterward."

On the floor itself, there wasn't much for the freshmen to do - but they did it. They clapped at the right times during the speech of outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), such as when she spoke of "our shared obligation to the way forward."

They also didn't clap at certain times, as when Pelosi spoke about last year's health-care overhaul.

When the moment came to be sworn in, it was over in seconds. New House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), having been elected with the freshmen's votes, read the oath. They all said, "I do!" Handshakes all around.

After that, the freshmen filed in, one family at a time, for their first staged photo op as congressmen. Their families assembled into a posed group, with one family member holding a Bible. Then, Boehner walked over to join the group. Photos were snapped. Hands were shaken. Boehner was gone.

As the day ended, the freshmen queued up on the Capitol's steps, waiting to have family portraits taken with the dome in the background. Later that night, there would be receptions. The next day, there would be work. Some already had lobbyists calling their offices, introducing themselves even before some staffers had e-mail or phone service.

On Thursday, pressure will be on for the new lawmakers to start delivering. One tea party-affiliated freshman, Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), said that's when he will begin making good on one of his promises: to sleep in his office.

"The couch doesn't look comfortable," he said, having seen it for the first time this week. "I'm going to go out with my wife - we're going to buy sheets and a pillow. We're going to jump into it."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company