Roger Williams is a car dealer and a former baseball player. He’s comfortable talking to strangers. He’s also a new member of Congress and was a major player in national fundraising efforts for George W. Bush when Bush ran for president.
Williams is new to Congress, but he knows his way around and knows a lot of the players. And he’s not the sort to record slights at the beginning of his tenure there. He gently deflects a question about his first impressions of Congress and about what kind of reception he received after winning in November. He also doesn’t offer any anecdotes about the Congressional welcome wagon.
The 25th Congressional District wasn’t likely to elect a Democrat; in fact, it was designed to eliminate U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who ran in a friendlier district a few miles to the southeast and won.
Williams wasn’t regarded as a guy in trouble in November, and he had time between the Republican primary and now to talk to some of his new colleagues before arriving in Washington for freshman orientation.
Those new colleagues can be slow to thaw. In the whirlwind after his successful challenge of Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco, R-San Antonio, Democrat Pete Gallego’s phone calls came mostly from friends, supporters and legislative colleagues in Texas. Marc Veasey, the new Democratic congressman from Fort Worth, wasn’t immediately besieged by calls from Washington’s 202 area code, either.
It’s a small thing, but if you had a mother or father who made you write thank you notes or told you to go toss a football with the new kids in school every year, it seems a little weird that several of the new members of Congress from Texas weren’t showered with greetings from their new workmates.
Maybe it’s a difference in how lawmakers shop for allies and for votes in the nation’s capital. And maybe the calls came later and all the courtesies have been observed by now.
In Texas, the shopping is different. Some issues break on partisan lines, with Democrats here and Republicans there. But many don’t. Public vouchers for private schools, for instance, is a favorite issue of some — but decidedly not all — conservatives. It’s an example of something that requires the combatants to find friends wherever they can, within their parties or without.
In Austin this week, new legislators-elect were doing the same thing their Washington counterparts were doing. The freshmen were getting their offices, getting oriented, hiring for the session, finding furniture, getting ready for the show.
Here’s a difference: some tables in the room where the Texas legislators met had Republicans at them — and Democrats.
Washington is a different culture, with firmly drawn partisan lines. One new lawmaker tells a story of getting in line for security passes this week and finding that photographs were being taken of Democrats in one line and Republicans in the other.
The tribes are strong in Austin, too, but not like that.
In Washington, the eight Texas tenderfoots — three Republicans and five Democrats — are finding out where their offices are, how to hire staff, how payroll works, and some of the peculiarities and hazards of federal ethics laws. They’ll get their committee assignments soon enough, and blend into, or start to transform, a Congress that has an approval rating of 11 percent among Texas voters.
They’ll count their votes in party caucuses and then vote in blocs. In Texas, legislators might start there, but they’ll get their 76 votes for any given issue wherever they can find them, starting with the votes for their rules and for the speaker of the House.
They’ve already started bonding; older Texas lawmakers can still name many of their classmates — the people they were elected with — even when their politics are disparate. Most of Gov. Rick Perry’s legislative classmates, for instance, were Democrats — as he was when he got elected.
It’s a system that still relies in some measure on camaraderie and friendship and temporary differences that don’t automatically result in permanent enmities. Sure, there are permanent enemies in Austin — it’s not Disneyland. But there’s still only one line for security photographs.
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