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Freshmen Congress Go Back to School

By Marc J. Ambinder, Crimson Staff Writer

In 1982, Jim Matheson was a fresh-faced senior at Harvard, his mind focused on sports. His career path was set. He would go from WHRB broadcaster to professional sports announcer, hopefully calling basketball or football games. Eighteen years later, Matheson is not a sportscaster. But he is back at Harvard, sitting on the top floor of the Taubman building, learning the ropes as a new member of the U.S. Congress from Utah's 2nd district.

"Circumstances just came together," he says.

Running Wednesday through Saturday of this past week, an orientation for more than 40 new members of the incoming U.S. Congress was held at the Kennedy School of Government. Friday's panel, which examined relations between the White House and Congress, ostensibly sought to provide a primer on how first-year representatives can get along with the White House.

What should Matheson, a Democrat, expect from the Bush White House? What courtesies are usually given? How should he work with cabinet agencies and political officials to publicize his priorities? Who sets the agenda, the President or the Congress?

But the panel only turned into a miniature version of what is likely to transpire in the House and Senate chamber next year.

The Democrats in attendance wanted to know how much authority they would have to raise their pet issues, considering the Republican presidency. Republicans questioned how they could tease a coherent, conservative program from a conflicted and divided legislature.

Matheson and other freshmen have their work cut out for them. Republicans hold a six-seat majority in the House, and the Senate is numerically deadlocked, with Vice President-elect Richard L. Cheney slated to be the tiebreaker. Veterans within the Republican Party are pushing for a change in the dynamics of leadership, hoping to balance the need for bipartisanship with the political desire for a conservative legislative agenda.

Ralph Hellmann, the legislative director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), urged his colleagues on Friday to find a comfortable balance between their own desires and the enormous expectations upon them.

Ultimately, he said, their ability to build capital as bargainers will determine their future success.

The first lesson, he told the new members of Congress: "Don't try and think you have the fresh solution," he said. "The system is committee-driven," and a first-year representative who barges into a hearing with "the" answer to Social Security would be lucky to even get a second look.

"Look for issues not on the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post," he said. "Find something to go home with."

Anne Wexler, a Washington legend who managed a panoply of Democratic constituency groups as President Jimmy Carter's public liaison, advised the freshmen on the dynamic between White House staff and Congressional representatives.

If you're a Republican, she said, make sure the White House won't surprise you by announcing, without your knowledge, an initiative that effects your district. Also, "Demand access to policymakers," many of whom are quite willing to meet with Congress, she said.

Kenneth Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, explained some political realities of current atmosphere in Washington. Duberstein said that President-elect George W. Bush would "go in steady" with Congress, ready to work with conservative and Southern Democrats to forge a working majority. This likely means a step-by-step process, he said.

"There are not many Hail Mary passes in Congress. There are an awful lot of three-year-passes in a cloud of dust," Duberstein said.

Wexler, a Democrat, said she agreed. Representatives should expect change "incrementally, not monumentally."

Importantly, they should find ways of selling that point to their constituents.

But she also said that lingering questions about Bush's mandate to govern would put a counter-pressure on the Republican leadership for something substantive in February, perhaps on education or on Social Security.

"I think President-elect Bush needs an early win to convince the American people," she said.

Duberstein spoke of the need for bipartisan gestures. The Democrats, he said, should ensure "early and prompt" confirmation of Republican cabinet. That "would put pressure on Trent Lott" to reciprocate.

Later, Duberstein as sharply questioned by Representative-elect Susan Davis (D-Calif.). What gestures could the Republicans make to assuage Democratic concerns that their own voices would be drowned out?

Both Hellmann and Duberstein found that unlikely. "Any big issue that the other party wants to be a bellwether issue will make it to the floor and there'll be a debate," Hellmann said.

Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and a Harvard Law School grad, wanted to know whether the House's narrow margin has persuaded the Republicans to allocate more seats on key committees to the Democrats. Hellmann didn't have the answer Schiff wanted. "We're trying to address this," he said. "It's a matter that we're working on."

The panel ended where it began--with a discussion of the actual issues that are likely to come to a vote soon. Hellman, whose boss Hastert has perhaps more influence on next year's legislative agenda than almost any other Republican, spoke of defense and education, Social Security and incremental tax relief.

He said a fight for the fruits of the surplus, particularly with slower economic growth, would likely mark Congress' first public battle.

At least one representative was undeterred by the battle plan at hand. During the hour and a half-long session, Ric Keller, a lawyer elected to represent Florida's 8th district, scribbled away on a faxed copy of a bill he was proposing. He wants to increase Pell Grants, and he says he has "broad bipartisan support." The first day Congress is in session, he says, he'll throw the legislation in the hopper.

"I plan on hitting the ground running," he says.

--Staff Writer Marc J. Ambinder can be reached at ambinder@fas.harvard.edu.

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