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Midlands’ rookies get crash course in Congress before the real work begins

Midlands’ rookies get crash course in Congress before the real work begins

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WASHINGTON — The first week of school can be rough.

Like a high school freshman late to class, Rep.-elect Brad Ashford, D-Neb., missed his turn Wednesday in the office space draft for new House members.

Instead of picking 11th out of 57 new lawmakers, Ashford wound up selecting near the end.

Ashford later blamed “miscommunication,” but he minimized the impact.

“It is so infinitesimally unimportant to me,” he said of his office location. “You take what you can get.”

The minor hiccup for Omaha’s new congressman came at the tail end of a jampacked week of orientation. He and other rookies have been learning the ropes on Capitol Hill, making new friends and setting up their operations.

Nebraska and Iowa each has a new U.S. senator taking office in January: Ben Sasse and Joni Ernst, both Republicans. In the House, Republican David Young from southwest Iowa’s 3rd District joins Ashford as a new member.

It’s a time for briefings on everything from the latest ethics rules to legislative procedures.

The newbies are instructed on how to hire staff and pay them, how to introduce bills and round up co-sponsors and how to keep constituents informed — including rules for sending mass mailings with the franking privilege.

There’s much to learn and decide even before being sworn in.

One of those decisions is office space, which is allocated through a lottery and a draft.

Ashford randomly drew the 11th pick during the Wednesday morning lottery. Each member-elect then had a few hours to check out offices before the afternoon draft started.

After the first 10 members selected their offices in the draft, House administration officials repeatedly called Ashford’s name — but got no answer.

A murmur spread through the crowded room, with newly elected members or their aides expressing disbelief that someone with such a relatively high pick would not show up.

“Eleven is the new 57,” one person in the audience joked as “time expired” appeared next to Ashford’s name on the electronic draft board and he was moved to the end of the line.

Tiffany Muller, Ashford’s new chief of staff, arrived moments too late, but officials in charge of the selection process said the rules did not allow them to go back once they had moved on to the next name.

Ashford later told the World-Herald that there had been a misunderstanding about how much time each member would be given to make their selection.

He laughed off the incident and said he’s focused on diving into the work of finding bipartisan solutions for the country’s challenges, breaking through gridlock and working hard for Nebraskans.

Ultimately, Ashford snagged a suite on the first floor of the Cannon House Office Building and said it was more or less where he had hoped to end up anyway.

Even before the draft started, Ashford had said he liked the idea of being in the Cannon Building for its history, noting that it was Nebraska’s George Norris who led a famous revolt in the House against then-Speaker Joe Cannon back in 1910.

The office space draft isn’t the only real estate decision that the freshmen are facing. They also have to find a place to crash in Washington after a busy day of legislating.

As a longtime aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Young already has a place in northwest Washington.

Sasse has been keeping an eye out for a garden apartment or English basement rental in a townhouse close to the Capitol, while Ashford is looking to rent a one-bedroom apartment either in Chinatown or near the Nationals’ baseball stadium.

Incoming lawmakers have to fill out their office rosters as well. Ashford has chosen Muller, who has been working for Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., as his top staffer. Outgoing State Sen. Amanda McGill will run Ashford’s district office back in Omaha.

Young has tapped James Carstensen for chief of staff. Carstensen now holds the same position for retiring Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, the man Young is replacing.

Sasse said he was still working on hiring top staff. Like many other freshmen, he noted that a flood of outstanding résumés have been pouring in.

A lot of these early days are about building relationships. Ashford has said he’s already exceeded his campaign promise to find 25 friends from both parties who can work together on big issues.

After wanting to serve in Congress for 45 years, Ashford is anxious to get started, chafing at advice from some current members to go slow.

He half-jokingly suggested to his aides Wednesday that he start introducing some bills. They pointed out that he can’t actually do that until January.

At least we can start writing them, he countered.

Sasse also stressed the importance of getting to know his new colleagues — even when they make for unlikely pairings.

A conservative, outspoken critic of the new health care law, Sasse said he was impressed with the self-deprecating wit of the much more liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

And Sasse found himself seated at dinner one night with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the current Senate majority leader. They didn’t talk much about policy, however.

“I just asked him a lot of personal questions about how he became a boxer as a kid and grew up in a town of 300 that he claims had 13 brothels,” Sasse said. “So we had lots of stories of Searchlight and I just got to know him as a person.”

Sasse said he’s glad soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has talked about restoring minority rights in the new Senate after Republicans take over and allowing Democrats more latitude in offering amendments than they have offered the GOP.

Sasse made a splash during his primary battle when National Review made him their poster boy as “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis.”

But he downplayed the suggestion that everyone recognizes him when he’s in Washington.

“Joni Ernst is the person everybody knows,” Sasse said.

Ernst, an Iowa state senator, attracted national attention with her dynamic campaign ads — particularly one that focused on hog castration. Apparently there have been plenty of “squeal” jokes flying around the Senate recently.

Grassley noted Wednesday that Ernst’s aides have spent many hours working out of his conference room over the past week.

The World-Herald requested a brief interview with Ernst about orientation, but aides said she was too busy.

Sasse and Ashford have some previous Washington experience, but Young probably has the biggest head start on his colleagues with his many years working for Grassley.

Young recently held a gathering for a few friends at the Monocle restaurant, a longtime Capitol Hill hang-out for senators just across from the Dirksen Office Building.

Owner Vasiliki Valanos greeted Young with hearty congratulations.

“Do we have to call you Congressman now?” she asked, giving him a big hug.

“I’ve been called worse,” Young quipped back.

Although he has some Capitol Hill experience, Young said he’s still learning.

“It’s just a lot to absorb,” he said. “It’s like going to school all over again.”

It’s particularly important to understand House rules and procedures, he said.

“You may be an expert on the issue on the floor,” Young said. “But if I know the rules I’m going to come out ahead of you every time.”

Life on Capitol Hill isn’t all glamour and glitz.

House members start out in cubicle-size temporary space, while new senators have to make do with a few temporary rooms in the Dirksen basement while their permanent office space is sorted out — a process that can take months.

While conducting interviews in the cafeteria down the hall, Sasse said, he has spotted several mice running around.

The new members have been getting plenty of advice.

At one session for freshmen House members, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., imparted a key piece of wisdom: Don’t go over the budgeted amount for your office. Every year one or two members manage to do that. And the extra money comes out of the member’s own pocket.

“If you go over your budget, you have to pay for that personally,” she told them. “You can’t pay that out of campaign funds.”

Contact the writer: joe.morton@owh.com, twitter.com/MortonOWH

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