Washington state's newcomers go to work in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2013 

— After learning that he would rank 382nd in seniority in the new U.S. House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia, Wash., did a quick calculation to figure out where he stands as a rookie on Capitol Hill.

"I'm 60 years old. That means if I live to be 114 that I'll probably be in the top 100," said Heck, adding that entering Congress was like "running into a burning house."

As 82 freshmen joined the House on Thursday, Heck had a leg up on the other newcomer from Washington state, Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, who will rank 391st in seniority.

"I'm sure he's going to mention that a lot in coming years," said Kilmer, adding that he was eager to get rolling: "It feels great to be able to dive in and get to work."

Both men formally took the oath of office, hoping that a transfusion of new blood would help ease the partisan wars in Congress.

While their arrival signaled a fresh start for Congress, it marked a big drop in clout for Washington state, which lost the muscle of the retiring Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, a 36-year veteran who rose to No. 10 in House seniority.

"We're rebooting," Heck said. "It's inevitable."

Kilmer, a former state senator who took over for Dicks, said his predecessor left "an extraordinary legacy" in the state and that his experience will be missed.

"Tacoma's a different place, and Bremerton's a different place, as a result of his years of service," said Kilmer, who turned 39 this week.

Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene will be the third freshman in the Washington state delegation. But she got a head start and was sworn in Nov. 13 after being elected to replace Democrat Jay Inslee, who resigned his House seat to make his successful run for governor.

In the Senate, 20 women – a record high – were sworn in Thursday. Two of them, Washington state Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, took on new high-profile assignments. Murray became the new chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, while Cantwell took over as head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, assuming her first full committee chairmanship.

Heck, a former state representative and co-founder of a statewide public affairs television channel in Washington state, filled an open seat added as a result of the state's population growth in the 2010 census. The state now has 10 members in the GOP-controlled House: six Democrats and four Republicans.

Heck, who will join the House Budget Committee, said his first hope for Congress is "that the institution would become functional again" and that members begin working on compromises.

"Thus far it's been a dysfunctional House," he said. "But you know, we're turning a new page today so there's no point in approaching it with a half-glass-full attitude. Let's see what we can do."

Heck said his office set-up has been going smoothly, largely because he hired two of Dicks' former staffers as his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. He interrupted an interview with a reporter to greet Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, calling him an old friend and "a really powerful dude around here."

"I served in the Legislature with Doc Hastings 900 years ago," Heck joked.

Kilmer will take a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, joining two others from Washington state: Democrats Adam Smith, the ranking member, and Rick Larsen. He said his assignment would be a good fit for his district, where "the military has an enormous impact."

Heck and Kilmer both said they backed the centerpiece of a tax bill passed Tuesday by the previous Congress that increased tax rates on households with incomes of more than $450,000. And both said they would have supported higher rates for households with lesser incomes of $250,000, as originally proposed by President Barack Obama.

But Kilmer said he was disappointed that the end-of-the-year partisanship in the former Congress prevented passage of a deficit-reduction plan to replace planned across-the-board spending cuts.

"The last few days of bickering at the end of the last Congress made me even more eager to come here and get to work," Kilmer said. "I put 34,000 miles on my car over the previous nine months, and the vast majority of people that I talked to were just tired of the partisan bickering."

Heck said he been spending 18-hour days unpacking and getting ready for his new job and that he didn't want to comment on all the specifics in the latest tax bill because he didn't have time to go through it all.

"I'm going to be a guy who actually knows what I'm voting on," he said.

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