Newly elected members of the House come to Washington this week for their first lessons on parliamentary procedure, dinners with party leaders, tours of the U.S. Capitol, a group photo and the start of the arduous process of hiring a staff, securing choice committee assignments and scoring office space.
None, however, are in the odd position that Ami Bera finds himself in. The Democrat has a slim lead over Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who is chairman of the House Administration Committee and responsible for orienting new members. That means the man Bera hopes to unseat will train him on how to do his job.
Officials still need to count about 70,000 outstanding absentee and provisional ballots before certifying the results, but Lungren plans to return to Washington and attend to his official duties this week regardless of the outcome, aides said. Bera’s slim lead means he’s eligible to attend the orientation sessions, so he took an overnight flight from Sacramento and arrived in Washington Monday morning.
“I think it will be interesting,” is all Bera would say about the prospect of sitting through orientation sessions led by his opponent. “I’ve not talked to Lungren since the election, so it’ll be my first chance to shake his hand.”
The Bera-Lungren race is one of six House races that were undecided as of Monday afternoon. Four of the remaining races, in Arizona, California and Florida, include potential new Congress members.
“People in that respective district are owed a member of Congress who can hit the ground running on Day One, no matter who wins,” said Jamie Fleet, Democratic staffer director for the administration committee. He said it was not uncommon for a candidate to arrive in Washington for training only to be uninvited after officially being declared the loser.
If he wins, Bera in many ways embodies the makeup of this year’s freshmen class and the continued diversification of House Democrats, a caucus that for the first time will be dominated by women and minorities. The son of Indian immigrants, Bera would be just the third Indian-American elected to Congress, after Dalip Singh Saund (D-Calif.) in 1952 and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who won a House seat in 2004. He is one of two Democratic physicians from California elected to the House, along with Raul Ruiz, who defeated Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).
The incoming class of House lawmakers also includes at least nine veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the first bisexual woman, Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat whose victory in a new Phoenix-area seat makes her one of seven members of the LGBT community serving in the House and Senate. There’s also the first Hindu elected to Congress, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, who succeeds Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who in turn won a Senate seat and will be that chamber’s first Buddhist member.
No matter how historic their elections or the acclaim they enjoy back home, veterans of the orientation process said new members will need to quickly adjust to their new status in Washington.
“You may campaign with bluster and bravado, but once you get there, you’re one of 435 [in the House], you’re one of 70 or 80 new members, so you have to get in line and learn the ropes,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
“They’re so instantly thrown into a series of votes and participation that it’s like drinking from a fire hose,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who won his first race in 2008. “You do the lottery on office selection, you participate in the voting on leadership races and steering committee votes. The freshmen class picks somebody for the steering committee. And then there were five orientations between Election Day and the first part of January. Those will get off to a start and they’re off to the races.”
“I kicked footballs in college and this is as close to being a football team as it gets,” Chaffetz added. “You’ve all been elected, but you’re all equals and you all look at each other and think, Now, what do we do?”
Connolly, who went through orientation in 2008, said if he could do it again, he’d focus more on hiring his staff.
“Go for quality, not for political reward,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to want to reward campaign workers, but they aren’t necessarily the best suited” for Congress, he said. “In the legislative process, one or two politically-grounded people is great, but the rest have to be up to snuff on policy and the legislative process.”
Bera plans to begin hiring staff this week and said he hopes his committee assignments somehow relate to his background as a physician and his family ties to India. He noted that at least one-third of the House will have less than three years of congressional experience when they convene in January — giving members a unique opportunity to get to know each other and learn together.
“A lot of what we saw in my race and across the country is that voters want the parties to work together,” he said. “I hope we can start doing that this week.”
Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.
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