Past and Present Converge as 108th Congress Convenes

Posted January 7, 2003 at 4:11pm

Pledges of allegiance, mock ceremonies and real ceremonies, grandchildren and grandparents, freshmen and freshly returned Members, merriment and politics all mingled in the Capitol on Tuesday as the 108th Congress convened.

For most new Members the day began with family and friends as well-wishers, while constituents, campaign workers and lobbyists all cooed and preened over the 65 freshmen at various receptions, luncheons and open houses.

In addition to each chamber’s official swearing-in ceremonies, Members could invite their families to witness a more impressive, individual mock ceremony conducted in places such as the Old Senate Chamber — perfect for photo opportunities.

The day was orchestrated to provide maximum pomp and circumstance for the local reporters eagerly shadowing their newly minted lawmakers for the hometown media. And never the local audience mind that its representative, with his uniform-like navy blue suit and red tie, is only one of 535 Members of Congress.

The atmosphere in the Capitol was very much like the first day of school combined with parent-teacher conference day: hectic a few lost freshmen, but everyone on their best behavior. The place was bustling, everyone was glad-handing and excitement radiated from both chamber floors.

“I am excited about it,” said freshman Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.). “It’s good to be on the floor with my mother and two children, he said.

“There are very few times in this country’s history that a son is able to follow his mother into the Congress,” the 36-year-old said, understating his unique spot in history after he won the seat his mother, Carrie Meek (D), held for five terms.

Receptions big and small were held all over the Capitol complex. Some were packed with people crammed wall to wall to pay homage to those bright spots or surprise wins in their respective parties, as was the case with a party thrown in Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s honor. The Maryland Democrat wrested his liberal-leaning district from popular moderate Rep. Connie Morella (R), who had served eight terms.

On the Senate side, there was a bit of homecoming for some Members and their families.

Former Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) proudly trolled the hallways trailing after his freshman Senator wife, Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

Along the way he stopped to say hello to an old friend who also happens to be a freshman Senator (for a second time), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Lautenberg, who entered the Garden State race at the last minute to replace exiting Sen. Robert Torricelli (D), was happy to be back in the chamber that he voluntarily left two years ago.

“It’s remarkable to be in this place — after a two-year absence,” the septuagenarian said. But there was some disappointment for him, he said, as he could not find his old desk.

“I looked under the desk to see if it said ‘Harry S. Truman,’ as the desk I moved around with me before had, but it wasn’t the same desk,” he said dejectedly.

Lautenberg was not the only member of his freshman class happy to return to Congress.

Sen. Jim Talent, who served four terms in the House before leaving in 2000, said he was surprised at how awe-struck he was by his new work place.

“I’m excited and more so than I thought I would be,” he said. “I thought it would be like any other new Congress I experienced in the House, but it was different.”

As the day wore on, however, onlookers were reminded that Members have a lot of tough battles to fight.

Lawmakers were already jockeying for support for their bills. “There’s a lot of pending legislation from the last Congress that needs to get done,” Talent said.