WASHINGTON — The office name plates are posted, key committee assignments doled out and the staff members are — more or less — in place. For the history-making class of freshmen who flipped the House from Democratic to Republican control, now comes the hard part: governing in opposition to a president intent on his own re-election.
Halfway through Barack Obama's presidential term, the new Republican lawmakers causing the hubbub on Capitol Hill this week say they are focused on a mandate to cut government spending and debt, create jobs and roll back the Democrats' signature health care overhaul. Less clear is how they would do that in a political culture that many of them derided on the campaign trail, against experienced but vanquished Democrats energized against any effort to undo their list of legislative accomplishments.
Some new Republican lawmakers debut from perches of outsized power, such as a trio of rookies selected to serve on the House committee that controls the federal purse strings. Others arrive in groups with expertise, such as the gaggle of doctors and one dentist who won their seats in part by campaigning against health care reform.
Despite the call for fresh faces on Capitol Hill, the new Republican majority includes political veterans, such as five former House members returning for service and a number of former congressional and White House aides.
There are Democrats in the freshman lineup too — nine of them, led with the rest of the Democrats by Californian Nancy Pelosi after she surrenders the speaker's gavel on Wednesday to Ohio Republican John Boehner.
"We put the car together, we've got the wheels on, we got the steering column in place," said Rep.-elect Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., one of 85 Republicans to be sworn in Wednesday. "It's time to start the engine and start the journey."
It could be a bumpy ride for three House freshmen who were elected on a pledge to cut federal spending but drew assignments to the prestigious Appropriations Committee. That's because the committee's culture is all about spending money, not saving it or cutting back on spending.
"I'm sure there will be some frustrating moments for some of the new folks, but the will is there," said Rep.-elect Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.
"I think the three freshman members on appropriations, as well as many members in this new Congress, feel very strongly about this issue," Yoder added. "I think we're all optimistic that we can use this new energy to make Congress change."
Yoder and Reps.-elect Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi and Steve Womack of Arkansas all arrive with experience doling out public dollars. Yoder and Nunnelee served as appropriations chairmen in their state legislatures, while Womack served as mayor of Rogers, Ark., for a dozen years.
Their appointments to the vaunted panel were the GOP's acknowledgment of the voter anger and distrust against the sometimes self-preserving way members of Congress chose to spend federal dollars. Republicans also voted to extend a ban on "earmarks" that directed money toward home-state projects.
But the party also appointed a past "prince of pork," Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, to chair the panel after he disavowed eamarking.
Earmarks still have plenty of defenders in Congress; even Rogers' fellow Kentuckian, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, was a robust advocate of the practice as Congress' constitutional exercise of its power of the purse. But when abuses fueled public distrust, McConnell got on the moratorium bandwagon too.
Womack says that in a recovering economy, with nearly double-digit unemployment, the standard for a project's fate should be whether it would create jobs.
"It's no longer about, 'What can I do to sit in this committee and bring money home?' That's very selfish," the former mayor said Monday as he studied up on the panel's complex dynamics. "We've got to look at the appropriations process as, 'What can we do as a team to address America's spending problem?'"
Yes, there's a doctor in the House. A half-dozen newly elected ones, in fact, all sent to Washington in part on pledges to repeal the Democrats' health care overhaul.
Few groups can claim as much credibility on the issue, and they'll have help. The new members already have met with the House's Republican "doctors caucus" about the idea of overturning the overhaul, though talks have not progressed to much detail, participants said.
Obama has promised to veto a repeal if it reaches his desk. Even so, Republicans say they will try to starve the overhaul of money and dismantle it piece by piece.
Short of a full repeal, it's not yet clear that group is united on which parts of the law to try to cancel.
"Nothing is concrete," said Rep.-elect Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., the only dentist in the newly elected group. "We need to sit down and orchestrate things and take a look at what our ideas should be."
The other newly elected doctors are GOP Reps.-elect Joe Heck of Nevada, Nan Hayworth of New York, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Larry Bucshon of Indiana, Andy Harris of Maryland and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
Their opposition is likely to be fierce. Pelosi cited the preservation of the health care law as a key reason she decided to stay in Congress even after Democrats lost their majority in the House. Senate Democrats remain in control of that chamber, though it's unclear whether the crop of senators up for re-election in 2012 would accept or refuse changes to the overhaul.
Then there's an army of industry lobbyists at the ready.
Bucshon, a heart surgeon, said Monday he had not yet been contacted by outside interest groups — and that seemed OK with him.
"I still have two more days," he said.
Earlier this fall, when the freshmen-to-be were ushered into the empty House chamber for orientation, they all sat on their respective partisan sides of the aisle. And then one Democrat moved.
Rep.-elect Hansen Clarke of Michigan strode across the aisle and sat on the Republican side.
"I thought, why not?" he said afterward.
It was a cheeky move by one of the nine newly elected Democrats frequently overshadowed at the top of the 112th Congress by their history-making Republican counterparts.
Pelosi has said the new minority's role is in part to keep the new GOP majority from undoing the legislation passed during the prolific Democratic-controlled Congress.
That, said one of the newly elected Democrats, may take some talking.
"Working across the aisle, I think, will be really important," said Rep.-elect Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The other freshmen Democrats are Reps.-elect Karen Bass of California, John Carney of Delaware, Frederica Wilson of Florida, William Keating of Massachusetts, Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii and David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
The Political Veterans
Many voters demanded fresh faces in Congress, but they got much the same leadership lineup at the top. And even in the freshman class, there are political veterans.
Five incoming members are phoenixes, returnees to the halls in which they've served before.
They include Rep. Steve Chabot, a member of the "Republican revolution" of 1994 and a manager of President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial who lost his seat in 2008 to Democrat Steve Driehaus but won it back this year.3 comments on this story
The others are Reps.-elect Tim Walberg of Michigan, Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Steve Pearce of New Mexico.
Others in the freshman class have years of Washington experience. Rep.-elect Jaime Herrera, R-Wash., was a White House intern and later worked for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
And Huizenga worked for more than five years for former Rep. Pete Hoekstra.
For him and other experienced newcomers, Huizenga said, "This isn't their first rodeo."