WASHINGTON—Rookie senator Claire McCaskill couldn't have planned her first Senate subcommittee hearing any better if she'd scripted it herself.
Campaigning for the Senate last fall when she was still the Missouri state auditor, she vowed to go after waste at the Pentagon. So who turns up at her maiden Armed Services subcommittee hearing but the Pentagon's inspector general, who described a culture where buildings were built without cost controls and where contracts were worked out afterward.
"When I read this, I don't know whether to laugh or cry," McCaskill told him. "Does somebody get fired when that happens?"
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., jumped in to educate the freshman lawmaker.
"The senator from Missouri will learn that there's no such thing as firing a federal employee," he said. "Just doesn't happen."
The audience laughed. Martinez is a former Cabinet secretary and currently chairman of the Republican National Committee. McCaskill said afterward that although she didn't think he was patronizing her, "it was almost like a pat on the head."
McCaskill is one of eight freshmen Democratic senators who toppled several of Martinez's former colleagues in November's midterm elections and turned Capitol Hill politics upside down. They embody the public's frustration with Congress and helped change the national conversation about the war in Iraq. They also gave an ethics overhaul the boost it needed to pass.
This is the first in an occasional series that will chronicle how McCaskill, a longtime Missouri officeholder, adjusts to the realities of Capitol Hill. She, like the other freshmen, must balance her beliefs and the expectations of voters who elected her to shake up Washington against the challenge of mastering the complexities of Congress.
Missouri, McCaskill's home state, has long been a distillery of national political trends. In the past it was neither South nor North, but rather mixed elements of both as a kind of unruly border zone. Today, Missouri's politics are neither red nor blue, but purple, a blended hue that also reflects the moderate-to-conservative outlook of the Senate Democratic freshmen.
McCaskill, for example, is a former prosecutor who favors abortion rights, gun rights, stem cell research and the death penalty. She's proof that to win a swing state, you sometimes have to irritate everyone a bit.
After one month as a senator, she thinks it's just about the best job in the world.
"You can get access to the most powerful people," McCaskill said. "You can ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked."
Already she's questioned Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about President Bush's troop increase plan for Iraq, and she's off to Iraq in a few weeks to see the challenges for herself.
At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on a proposed merger between US Airways and Delta Airlines, right out of the box McCaskill said: "Let me first ask the two CEOs to give us the total amount of money that your airlines received from taxpayers since 9-11."
If suddenly becoming a player in the world of power is a heady experience, other aspects of being a rookie senator remain humbling.
For now, for example, McCaskill works out of an obscure office in a remote corner of the Hart Senate Office Building. You have go to the end of a long corridor on the eighth floor, past the men's and ladies' washrooms, through the last door on the right and into a stairwell. The door to the left leads to her office.
It's not the most auspicious entrance for someone who belongs to what's been called "the world's greatest deliberative body." But it's only temporary.
"I'm here until number 96 picks an office," McCaskill said, referring to the senator ahead of her in seniority. "Then I'll have eight hours to look over four. I don't think it will take me eight hours."
She doesn't have the time; simply keeping up every day is "like trying to drink from a fire hose," McCaskill said. The flow of information is overwhelming. She's on five committees, including high-profile panels such as Armed Services, Homeland Security and Commerce, and 10 subcommittees.
There are parliamentary rules to learn, party caucus and policy meetings to attend and reports to read. The pile of books on her night table at her Chinatown condo includes "The Iraq Study Group Report," a boiled-down version of the Senate procedure manual and some furniture catalogs.
Her condo, a short commute from Capitol Hill, is still largely devoid of furnishings. The 53-year-old senator sleeps on a mattress and box spring on the floor. Meanwhile, her staff is spread thin, though resumes lie in stacks on her office floor.
But it's only been a month.
"The first week, we needed an LD (legislative director), a hearing memo and an extension cord," said chief of staff Sean Kennedy, who used to work for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. "We got the extension cord."
Freshmen typically lie low. They learn the rules, avoid the spotlight and keep their noses clean. Even megawatt celebrities, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., tried, with limited success, to keep their heads down early on, despite the constant halo of media attention.
McCaskill said she "loves the rules" and Senate traditions. But the terrain for freshmen is different this year. They have heat. Political talk shows want them. The Democratic leadership showcases them.
McCaskill gave her first two floor speeches within three weeks of being sworn in, a rung on the Senate ladder that used to take months for freshmen to reach.
"This class is an unusual class, given their number and that they produced a change in leadership," said Christopher Arterton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. "They come in with a sense of empowerment."
They also occasionally mess up.
"In the beginning weeks, there was a little bit of friction," McCaskill said. "I made a mistake in one of the first votes I cast, and so did the other freshmen."
It was during the debate over an earmarking amendment to the ethics legislation. Earmarking refers to when lawmakers, usually unidentified, reserve money for projects back home that haven't been scrutinized through normal congressional procedure.
McCaskill said that, based on the leadership's briefing, the freshmen thought that a Republican amendment to improve earmark transparency wasn't as tough as a Democratic version. Seven of them opposed it.
But it was tougher, and given that they all had campaigned for stronger ethics rules, "there was some angst afterward" that they'd been steered wrong, McCaskill said.
McCaskill has a reputation for candor—sometimes to a fault. Every Missouri Democrat who knows her will tell you that. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid soon knew firsthand that the freshmen were upset.
"She was very clear with the leader about what we thought needed to be done," said fellow freshman Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland.
It got fixed. When the final bill passed, it included the tougher language.
(This is the first in an occasional series of articles tracking freshman Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri as she learns how to be a senator. The series' premise is that Americans voted last November to change Congress, and tracking one rookie lawmaker's progress along the learning curve of how to work inside that complex institution could help readers better understand how and why Congress does what it does.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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