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. Some new lawmakers 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 GOP freshmen. "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?'"