Minutes after he was sworn in Thursday, new Florida Sen. George LeMieux got an earful of advice from Vice President Joe Biden, cast his first vote — against an Obama administration appointee — and threatened to block passage of an energy bill that would put oil drilling rigs near the Florida shore.
The Republican also sought to tamp down speculation that he would consider taking on Florida's senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, in 2012.
"I'm not focused on running for any political position in 2010 or 2012," he told reporters after his first press conference, fielding questions on immigration, oil drilling, President Barack Obama's health care speech and committee posts he might seek.
It was a heady start for the mild-mannered Tallahassee lawyer who, at 40, has never held elected office but now commands considerable influence and will wield a vote on critical issues facing the nation.
Appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fill the remainder of retired Sen. Mel Martinez's term, LeMieux scarcely mentioned the man considered his political twin, illustrating the delicate balance he is likely to seek as he promises to be his "own man" in Washington.
"There are tremendous issues facing this nation, and although my time in Washington will be brief, I intend to work hard every day to address these critical challenges and serve the people of this unique, diverse and wonderful state," said LeMieux, who has described himself as a "Charlie Crist Republican."
Crist, who is running for the Senate seat in 2010, didn't attend the swearing-in. LeMieux, who orchestrated Crist's 2006 gubernatorial win, was flanked by Nelson and former Sen. Connie Mack at the ceremony.
"I've got a lot of work to do here in Florida," Crist said in St. Petersburg. "I certainly wish Sen. LeMieux all the best. I'm sure he'll do great for the people of Florida."
LeMieux's first order of the day after a staff briefing and tour of his office: a speedy oath of office administered by Biden, who, as vice president, is president of the Senate.
That was followed by a ceremonial swearing-in in the old Senate chamber. Biden, a former Delaware senator whose successor has been mocked as a "placeholder" to keep the seat available for Biden's son, regaled LeMieux with advice, suggesting as a short-timer he was free to vote his conscience.
"For all the cynicism about this place, this is history," Biden said, extending an invitation to the new senator and his family to visit Biden's office in the White House.
The new senator held his first press conference, suggesting he'd like to secure one of Martinez's plum committee assignments, but acknowledging that as the "99th senator in rank, I'm not sure how much say I have."
He sat in the House gallery Wednesday night for Obama's healthcare speech, but said he wasn't yet ready to lay out a position. He said he's concerned about the cost of the plan, but is interested in the concept of exchanges to prod insurance companies to compete to cover groups of small businesses and families. He noted it was similar to Crist's Cover Florida plan.
"I don't have a firm position yet because I just got sworn in, but I'm going to wait and listen and learn," he said.
He also suggested he would try to flex some political muscle, saying he's considering putting a "hold" on — blocking — the Senate energy bill that contains a provision to allow drilling as close as 45 miles off the Gulf Coast and just 10 miles from the Destin Dome.
"I have concerns for environmental reasons, I have concerns for military reasons . . . and I have a concern that if there's going to be any drilling that Florida get its fair share of the proceeds," LeMieux said.
He said he wouldn't take a position on a state proposal to bring oil and gas exploration near the Florida coast, saying he'd "leave that to the Florida Legislature."
Martinez said Wednesday he believes the proposal would be "dangerous." Martinez also championed legislation to give illegal immigrants a chance at legalization, but LeMieux said he's still studying the subject.
LeMieux's appointment sparked criticism from conservative quarters for his close allegiance to Crist, whom some view as insufficiently conservative. Labor groups and Crist's Republican primary opponent, Marco Rubio, and Democratic opponent, Kendrick Meek, have also criticized LeMieux's law firm's role in bringing in Mexican laborers to build a high-rise hotel and condominiums in Miami.
"There's always going to be skeptics and there's always going to be folks that are critical, and that's our American democracy," LeMieux said. "We'll see how things go over the next 16 months and hopefully they'll be less critical when I leave."
Among the skeptics: former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, one of eight Senate hopefuls Crist bypassed for the appointment. Shaw said LeMieux must learn the intricacies of dozens of issues quickly, and added that because LeMieux is not known to most Floridians, he's going to have to spend as much time as possible in the state.
Friends, though, noted that as a political strategist who ran Crist's 2006 campaign, LeMieux is thoroughly familiar with the state and its voters.
As Crist's chief of staff, LeMieux provided key advice to a governor. As a rookie senator, he will be dependent on staff to guide him through a morass of policy issues and political minefields. Most Martinez staffers will stay on board.
Nothing dampened the enthusiasm of more than 100 people from Tallahassee and LeMieux's home county of Broward who traveled to Capitol Hill to watch the swearing-in of the first U.S. senator from the county.
Less than an hour after he took Biden's advice, LeMieux cast his first Senate vote, "no," in opposition to President Obama's nomination of Harvard professor Cass Sunstein to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein was confirmed anyway, 57-40.
The roll call vote sheets circulated in the Senate press gallery still listed Martinez's name, which had been scratched out and replaced by "LeMieux" in pencil.