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Awed and eager, freshmen tackle house

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WASHINGTON » You’re new to town, and your dreams and plans are big as the Capitol rotunda. You will do all you can to repeal the new health care law. You will tame the budget deficit. You will make your mark, or at least a very large speck, on American life.

But first, you will do TV. At 7:30 a.m., with reporters from your home state, via the phone because the satellite link malfunctioned.

Then, if you are Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., you race back to your office, where lobbyists have already begun to leave you little missives about how they hope you will vote on a rule change.

Lankford, 42, is one of scores of new Republican lawmakers who joined the 112th Congress last week, a class tasked with annulling the ambitious policy agenda that came to fruition under Democratic rule and powering past the shoals of divided government to put an immediate conservative imprint on Washington.

A former Christian camp director who, before he was elected, had last been to the nation’s capital in high school, Lankford is as much a symbol of his class as a member of it: a first-time politician who plans to send his family back home, sleep on his office couch and, he says, spurn special interests in the name of those who put him here.

"My family’s theory is that the best way not to become Washington is to not live in Washington," he said.

Like most other freshmen, it seems, Lankford is still residing firmly in the pinch-me stage of electoral euphoria. "At this point I am just terribly pleased I can find my way around the Capitol without having to pack a lunch," he said as he made the first of what will no doubt be hundreds of brisk walks from his office to the glorious building where lawmakers do their thing.

This was never supposed to really happen. "In 2008, I had a real sense of calling," said Lankford, who later that year resigned from his job to campaign full time. "We described it as an unsettling. It was almost like God was telling me, ‘Get ready. Get ready."’

After a prayer journey, he said, he decided, in consultation with his wife, Cindy, to run for the seat that opened in the 5th Congressional District in Oklahoma when Rep. Mary Fallin decided to seek the governorship.

That it actually happened still seems to amaze him. "I’ve been drawn out by the people that live among me, who are just like me, in my district," he said. "People ask me what are they like there, and I tell them, the House floor looks and feels like America. I’ve run into car dealers, attorneys, a funeral home owner and a pizza operator. I know it’s right, but I can’t believe it’s me standing here. It’s a bit intimidating. When I put that card in there and I vote, I am representing 750,000 people who sent me here and entrusted me to do the right thing."

He was mildly star-struck, he said, when he found himself in an elevator with Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who is the senior member of the House. "He came before me," Lankford said, "and now I am here, and I respect him a great deal."

The underbelly of partisan warfare, overstuffed schedules and the cold reality, that no, you actually cannot read every bill is beginning to dawn on him. "We’re already trying to make decisions because you can’t be at everything at once," he lamented.

The sting of the camera’s glare was made apparent by two Republicans, who embarrassed fellow members with their failure to take the oath before casting votes, on the same day that many members took part in the reading of the Constitution.

Democratic lawmakers, instead of behaving like slaughtered lambs, are behaving more like hornets whose nest was just whacked, eager to foil each and every one of the other side’s plans.

"Those are just subplots," Lankford said. "None of them are big, none of them are dramatic, none of them will change the country. It’s like we’re in a car on a wet street and the wheels are squeaking as we take off. But we’re moving."

Lankford, who brought his wife and two daughters to town for his first week on Capitol Hill, ricocheted between the festive joys of taking the oath, followed by receptions with his neatly combed out, dressed up, slightly dazed family members, and the klaxon tones of the buzzer calling him and his colleagues to vote.

He passed other members of the freshman class: Rep. Bobby Schilling of Illinois, who was trying to keep track of the youngest of his 10 children; Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who could rarely seem to figure out where he was going; and Rep. Allen West of Florida, who began his first day in Washington with a 5 a.m. run around the city’s monuments. Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee raced from her swearing-in ceremony to a meeting, holding a 2-year-old-grandchild in one arm while pushing her mother in a wheelchair with the other.

Some freshmen, whose low-key elections back home kept them off the radar screen last fall, have already adopted the posture of marching briskly to the House floor, an aide or two attached to the right ear. Then there is Rep. Kristi Noem, who arrived from South Dakota with expectations and a media buzz phrase ("The new Sarah Palin!") and was immediately installed as a leader of her class. By Friday she was spotted sliding quietly around the Capitol alone, looking mildly forlorn.

There is already pressure to start raising money for the next battle. Lankford has not made the phone calls yet, but he knows they are coming. Someone in his district, he said, as he was sworn in, was "watching it on the news tonight and thinking, ‘I’m going to run against him two years from now."’

 

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