Rep.-elect Bill Orton, D-Utah, is finding that being a freshman in Congress is a lot like being a freshman in college.
"It's about the same. You stand in a lot of lines," he said Wednesday. "What I've learned is that freshmen don't get many choices, either in office space or assignments."His comments came after standing in a line to register for a required freshman course that Orton calls "Congress 101," the beginning of two weeks of intensive orientation for the 44 incoming freshmen. It is designed to help them hit the ground running when they take office in January.
Democrats actually had a head start with some seminars on Tuesday - which gave Orton the chance to look over some of his fellow freshmen.
"I am impressed with the number of other (freshmen) Democrats who are conservatives," Orton said. "Dick Swett from New Hampshire (who, like Orton, is a member of the LDS Church) and (Larry) LaRocco from Idaho could easily challenge me for the spot on the right of the party."
He added, "I am excited to come here as a member of the majority party. I expect to make a difference here. The leadership is interested in us and what we think, and encourages us to get involved."
Orton created a stir after the election by suggesting he might switch parties if he found he could not be effective as a conservative in the Democratic Party. He later said he regretted answering a reporter's hypothetical question on the topic and has stressed he has no plans for party switching.
Orton has also used orientation sessions and earlier meetings to lobby Democratic leaders for a prime committee assignment - but said he has been warned that freshmen often get only what is left over by more senior members.
Still, tax attorney Orton has been trying to show his credentials to win a spot on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. "I met with the speaker and the majority leader, and they know my credentials."
He adds that his chances are enhanced because he comes from a heavily Republican district, and Democratic leaders are eager to help him get an assignment important to his district to help solidify his political base.
The topic "Choosing a Committee and Campaigning for a Committee Assignment" was also one of the first issues in Democratic seminars Tuesday. Orton planned to use what he learned at numerous receptions planned for freshmen this week by such people as House Speaker Tom Foley and President Bush (who was to host them Wednesday evening).
Orton - who campaigned saying he is not a politician - said many of the seminars have been designed to help him learn enough about being one to survive in Congress.
"We've learned the basics in diplomacy, and how to get around Capitol Hill. We are learning how to work well with other members, and some of the `dos' and `don'ts' around here," he said.
Some of the topics scheduled for the first three-day round of orientation meetings - which are closed to the press - are panels on: ethics; members' official allowances and expenses; use of the franking privilege; how to organize an office; office automation and communication; and customs, decorum and unwritten rules of the House.
Freshmen next week will travel to Cambridge, Mass., for three days of seminars on policy issues at Harvard University. They will then return for three days of organizational party caucuses to choose leaders and committee assignments.
Orton has also used his time in Washington to interview potential staff. "I've interviewed many qualified people in Utah and Washington. I've found many people in Washington who are from Utah who have applied."
He is also still looking for an apartment. "It's slow. Things are expensive here. I knew they would be, but they are really expensive." He has been looking around Capitol Hill where even the most basic row house that would cost roughly $30,000 in Utah sells for more than $200,000.