Standing outside the official congressional hotel, watching his soon-to-be fellow lawmakers unload suitcases and staff, Barry Loudermilk told reporters something no candidate would have admitted before Election Day: He knew weeks ago that his race was in the bag.
"We knew we were going to be here as long as I didn't get run over by a bus," said the Georgia Republican. "We came in not quite as blind as some of the other guys."
Crossing the street just a few feet away, Democrat John Barrow didn't stop to greet a fellow Georgian. Moving quickly down the sidewalk, the defeated five-term congressman climbed up his stoop and entered his bright blue Capitol Hill brownstone. On the door was a sign with big red letters: For rent.
As some Democrats pack up and prepare for their return to civilian life, a fresh crop of Republicans arrived in Washington on Tuesday for a biannual ritual of congressional orientation. In just a few weeks, dozens of new freshman lawmakers will be sworn into Congress to try and make good on a long list of promises. But first, they wanted to know if they could bring their iPhones.
"Is that Blackberry on loan from the Smithsonian?" newly elected North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican, joked as he stood on the Senate floor. Colorado Republican Cory Gardner chuckled as another one of his new Senate colleagues, Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa, inspected a brass nameplate.
Much of their day felt like a class trip to Washington: Clutching the hands of their spouses, the new senators wandered past the colonial paintings and ornate murals of the Capitol, trailing behind aides guiding them through a stream of coffees, lunch, and meetings.
There were moments of bipartisan comity, as the old guard welcomed the new additions. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the body's No. 3 Democrat, escorted West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, to the senators-only dining room, helpfully explaining that the room was a great place to leave bags when there was a vote—and had the added benefit of a more private restroom. "I'm showing her the inner sanctum," he said as he held open the door.
Politics wasn’t far away. A morning coffee with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started in the traditional Washington way—with a photo op. Flanked by the two women—Ernst and Capito—McConnell rested his right hand in the pocket of his dark suit pants, gesticulated with the left, and laughed as he recalled the drubbing his party took at the polls when they lost the majority eight years ago. “This is a lot happier occasion than, for example, after the twenty-oh-six election when we had class President, Secretary and Treasurer Bob Corker,” McConnell said of the party’s only freshman member that year. “We’re really excited about having a great new bunch here.”
As the Republicans cheered their victory, the new senator from Michigan, Gary Peters, the chamber's sole new Democrat, had already lost his way. A Washington Post reporter pointed him in the direction of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office.
A few blocks away, soon-to-be House members poured out of taxis with suitcases and garment bags. Republican Aumua Amata Radewagen, the first female delegate from American Samoa, wore a white puffy vest over a green skirt, with her name printed in block letters across her bottom hem. Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, sported a Marine Corp pin on his label.
Michael Bishop of Michigan glanced nervously at the reporters lining the sidewalk. "My first impression of Washington is that there are too many cars on the road," he said, quickly adding "that really wasn't meant to be a policy statement. I was joking."
He made his way to a large tent where the congressmen-elect picked up bag tags and temporary identification cards—the photo for their official ID would come later. There was much to do: Briefings on office budgets, data plans to set up, dinners with congressional leaders, even curtains and carpet patterns to select. Next week, they'd pore over maps of office buildings before selecting their space in the office space lottery. And then, next year, they'd finally get sworn in.
The early arrivals mingled inside at a breakfast reception. "I'm looking forward to meeting all of them even on the other side,'' said Cresent Hardy of Nevada. "I just met one down the other end. I can't remember what his name is. I'm lousy with names."
They talked about hiring staff and finding housing. "I don't think a lot of people cook in Washington because there are lot of restaurants," said Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, who said she had "sticker shock" at the price of apartments.
Moulton planned to stay with friends—at least for a while. "I think there might be some couch surfing in my immediate future," he said. And Loudermilk was considering sleeping in his office to save money, but worried about getting away from work. "You save a lot of money by doing that but then again you got cleaning crews coming in in the middle of the night," he said.
But some problems, warned some of the more senior members, never get much easier—or cheaper. Ohio Representative David Joyce put much of his wardrobe in storage to save money while he ran for reelection in his swing district. As the new members chatted, he hauled dozens of ties, shirts, and suit jackets into a waiting car.
"I have to find a new apartment when I'm down here," he said, noting that he was previously paying $1650 for a studio. "But first I had to get reelected."
Michael C. Bender and Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.