While Congress returned to work Tuesday facing the looming "fiscal cliff" and a slew of other pressing legislative matters, the class of freshmen lawmakers who will be sworn in in January met at the Capitol to tackle more mundane matters — such as learning the location of the nearest restrooms.
Newly elected members of the 113th Congress, which begins in early January, arrived on Capitol Hill for the first of several days of orientation, including meetings with party leaders, seminars on the legislative process and workshops on setting up their offices.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed his chamber's new senators by jokingly reassuring them that "it's not as terrible a job as they say it is."
"We welcome your ideas, your energy and your enthusiasm. And we wish you every success in your time here," the Kentucky Republican said.
Twelve new senators — eight Democrats, three Republicans and one independent — will join the new Congress. In the House, there will be about 80 freshmen — more than half Democrats — though a handful of races are still too close to call.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, praised the collective diversity of the more than 40 new House Democrats, saying they will help make her caucus the first "in the history of civilized government to have a majority of women and minorities."
"Before you, you see a broad coalition of Americans that stand ready to work with President Obama to move America forward," she said during a news event at the Capitol to introduce the newly elected House Democrats. "Together, the diversity of our caucus celebrates the strength of our nation. This caucus is a picture of America."
That diversity is perhaps best illustrated in the election of Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the House. She will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress.
"It's an honor to serve all the communities that sent me here to Washington, but first and foremost, I identify myself as an Arizonian, and that's what matters most to me, my home state, the community I serve," she said. "What's more important than who we are is who we serve."
When asked if the Capitol met her expectations, she quipped; "Oh gosh, I just got here an hour and a half ago. I had trouble finding this room."
One House freshman who already knows his way round Capitol Hill is Rick Nolan, who is returning to Congress after serving in the chamber from 1975 to 1981. The Minnesota Democrat said he is more excited and optimistic about his second go-around because he feels better prepared than he was 30 years ago.
The "election [last week], if there was a message there, what it was was, 'We expect you all — liberal, conservative, Democrat and Republican — [to] start working together, solve some problems, get some things done," he said.
Mr. Nolan said the two biggest changes he has noticed on Capitol Hill compared to his first stint are the amount of time members spend fundraising, and Congress' increasing penchant for passing short-term fixes on major matters instead of dealing with problems head-on.
"When members are expected to spend 30, 40 hours a week in [telephone] call-time raising money — that's time we used to spend in committee, getting to know one another and learning where the areas of opportunity for compromise existed and getting things done," he said. "That's got to change."
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