Freshmen Sen. Thom Tillis begins to fit in on Capitol Hill

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina greets old friends Judy Condit (left), her husband Rick Condit (right), and their grandson Matthew Rojas, 13, at a reception in his office held after he was sworn in on the opening day of the 114th Congress, Jan. 6, 2014, in Washington, DC.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina greets old friends Judy Condit (left), her husband Rick Condit (right), and their grandson Matthew Rojas, 13, at a reception in his office held after he was sworn in on the opening day of the 114th Congress, Jan. 6, 2014, in Washington, DC. McClatchy

The new job is just a few days old but newly installed Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina says he’s already running hard and likes it that way.

“After the pace I’ve had the past year, I enjoyed the rest for a week after the election. But I’m ready for work,” Tillis said in an interview:

That means long days, all-nighters; whatever it takes.

The pace has been brisk from the beginning on Tuesday when Tillis was sworn in as the state’s new Republican senator. He was one of the dozen freshmen Republicans whose November victories flipped control of the chamber to the GOP after eight years of Democratic rule.

By Thursday, Tillis had attended his first Senate Armed Services Committee classified briefing, spoken with new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other veteran senators in meeting after meeting, and shaken hands and carried on cordial chats with Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor.

Tillis already had spent a lot of time at the Capitol after his post-election vacation and before Christmas. Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the state’s senior senator, escorted him around, as did others who know the place well. Now he’s one of the 100 senators, talking to them all the time.

“Not only about the senatorial process, but which hallways you can go down that don’t actually have a dead end,” he joked, at least in part. The Capitol is a labyrinth of marble stairways, long corridors, senators’ secret hideaways and underground passageways. It’s easy to get lost.

The new job also starts with some frustration and blame. The Senate under Democratic control was highly ineffective, Tillis said. Like other Senate Republicans, he blames Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, for blocking dozens of bills that had bipartisan support in the House.

Some Senate Democrats probably will “prefer for us not to succeed and fulfill our promise,” he said. “We’re just trying to get the Senate to function again.”

Tillis said that McConnell is trying to get away from a purely partisan atmosphere.

His maiden speech as majority leader, however, was a partisan attack on President Barack Obama.

Republicans need at least six votes from Democrats to get to the 60 needed in the Senate. Tillis said they also hope to find areas of agreement with the president. He predicted there would be agreement on some ways to cut wasteful spending and “make government more efficient and accountable.”

Tillis sees cutting government regulations, such as environmental rules, as a way to make the economy stronger. Regulations are written by federal agencies to implement laws passed by Congress.

“We need to get back and make the agencies who are putting more burdens on businesses and employers and hardworking taxpayers and question whether or not there’s a true benefit, and if there isn’t, we must take steps to repeal them,” he said.

“We’re serious about fulfilling the promise to the American people that we’re going to work together,” and Republicans will do their best to cooperate with Democrats, he said. “It sets the right tone to say we are here to fulfill our promises and to produce results.”

On immigration, Tillis said he plans to visit border states and meet with state officials to get a better understanding of the problem.

The border needs to be sealed, and discussions should begin about how to do it, he said. “If it was so easy, why have Democrats and Republicans failed to do it dating all the way back to the 1980s?”

In addition to Armed Services, Tillis will serve on the Senate committees that oversee the judiciary, veterans’ affairs and agriculture, as well as a special committee on aging.

He and his staff are working out of a temporary office on the ground floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, between a guarded entrance to the building and the staff ID photo shop. The seniority system in the Senate means that it takes months before each senator has a say in where he or she will work, and the most junior members are assigned the rest.

The desk of Tillis’ chief of staff, John Mashburn, is under a large state seal in the same room as the receptionist, directly opposite the office’s entrance. Mashburn is known as a very conservative Republican. He’s a North Carolina native with long experience on Capital Hill, including work for the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

Tillis said being speaker of the state House had helped train him to have an open mind and to listen to others in his party.

John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative North Carolina think tank, said much of what the legislature did under Tillis’ leadership had to do with spending and taxes. He said he expected Tillis to continue to work on fiscal policy.

“When it comes to the budget and tax reform, I think these are unifying issues for Republicans. They will benefit from elevating those issues, and Tillis will naturally gravitate toward elevating those issues,” Hood said.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican congressman from Charlotte, said Tillis “wants to govern in a way that creates a stronger economic environment.”

“Thom doesn’t need a lot of help,” Pittenger said. “He’ll assimilate well and he’s a quick study.”