Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s newly-elected senator, surveys his new terrain

Sen.-elect Mike Rounds, R-S.D., left, and Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, R-N.C., walk through the halls of the U.S. Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 12, 2014, as Congress returned to work for the lame duck session and newly-elected members get their orientation.
Sen.-elect Mike Rounds, R-S.D., left, and Sen.-elect Thom Tillis, R-N.C., walk through the halls of the U.S. Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 12, 2014, as Congress returned to work for the lame duck session and newly-elected members get their orientation. AP

Expect the U.S. Senate under Republican control to focus on jobs and the budget and to get a lot done next year, Republican Senator-elect Thom Tillis said in an interview Wednesday, after a bipartisan day of orientation on Capitol Hill.

The American people expect Congress to function better, Tillis said. “I believe what they have done is given the Republicans a chance to demonstrate that we can govern, that we can lead and we can get Congress functioning again,” he said, speaking in a hotel lobby a few blocks from the Capitol. “And I’m optimistic that my leadership saw that in the elections, that they’re taking it very seriously, and that we will have a very productive legislative agenda the first half of the year.”

For now, though, the job of a newly elected senator involves learning the ropes, hiring key staffers and finding a place to live. He’s already been house-hunting.

“Well, it won’t be a house though, because I have one on Lake Norman which I intend to go back to on a very frequent basis,” he said, noting that it will be easy since the flight is only about an hour and he lives 25 minutes from the airport.

“I’m looking for something that will be very simple. Most likely a studio,” he said. “My wife will be up here. But we’re talking about just settling in, trying to get a better sense of what the schedule is like and make a longer-term decision sometime next year.”

The orientation meetings for new senators, organized by nonpartisan staff, were a nice break “after the grind of the campaign,” the new Republican senator from Huntersville, N.C., said. The newly elected senators heard current lawmakers talk about their own transition experiences. This year's freshmen class is so far made up of 11 Republicans and one Democrat. The Louisiana Senate content will be decided Dec. 6

The new members also had a tour of the Capitol.

“You know, it’s only the second time in my life I’ve ever been in it,” Tillis said.

The first was a few years ago, when he was in Washington for meetings and North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx took him and others on a nighttime tour. But being there on Wednesday was different.

“We won the election, but it was almost as if I still didn’t really understand what had happened,” he said. “And then today, the orientations, walking through the building, understanding the unbelievable institution that you’re coming into. It’s quite a humbling experience, a wonderful experience, for my wife and me both.”

The economy will be the priority when he starts work, he said.

“Throughout the election a lot of people think that the narrative changed and what drove people to vote changed. But in reality jobs and the economy still continued to be the most prevalent issue in the minds of North Carolinians, and I would expect the nation,” he said. “So we need to get out and look at the jobs bills, regulatory reform, any sorts of things we can do to get the economy back on track and grow jobs.”

Many of the regulations the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to downsize were related to the environment. Tillis said the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants already had “chilling effect” on businesses because of predicted increases in energy costs.

The answer is to figure out whether benefits outweigh the costs, he said.

“That’s what we’ve done in North Carolina,” he said. “A focus on regulatory overreach, things that the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost, is probably the single greatest opportunity we have for having a positive impact on job creation.”

Another priority, he said, will be constituent services. His staff is reaching out to the staff of the opponent he defeated, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, to find ways to make sure that none of the outstanding constituent requests falls through the cracks.

The goal, he added, is “to have a reputation for one of the best constituent services operations of any senator in the United States.”

It’s part of his background of working in customer relationship management, making sure companies did a good job serving their clients.

Tillis said he expected Senate GOP leadership would work with Democrats to make the Senate work smoothly. President Barack Obama and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada “are likely to move on as many things as they have some control over and I understand that. I just hope they’re measured in the way they do that,” he said.

Tillis said he’s trying to figure out where his skills will fit best, but won’t know what committees he will be appointed to for a few weeks.

Tillis said he took one break after the election _ camping for three days at Linville Gorge _ and it may be the last except for holidays for a while. It was rustic, way off in the deep woods on an annual trek he and some old friends have been taking for years.

“We’ve been doing it so long we have some adult sons that go along with us,” he said.

It’s the kind of camping he really loves, he said. Not even any cell phone coverage.

“I figured I needed to seize the day,” Tillis said.