WASHINGTON - This story was originally published in Newsday on Jan. 7, 1997.
Her office on the top floor of the Longworth Building is small, but her new desk struck her as a bit big, as, for that matter, did her chair, considering that her feet didn't touch the floor when she sat in it for the first time.
There were plenty of jokes yesterday about how Rep. Carolyn McCarthy will "grow into it," as the Mineola Democrat spent her first day on the job on Capitol Hill.
More likely, she'll get a smaller desk and a new chair that better suits her 5-foot-2-inch frame, but the cheap symbolism was hard to ignore.
Sporting a "United States of America" baseball cap, McCarthy arrived on the job yesterday three years and a month after her husband, Dennis, was killed and her son wounded in the Long Island Rail Road massacre. As the entourage of national media following her every move indicates, her tragedy-to-triumph story has continued to attract the kind of national attention even veteran members of Congress can only dream of.
Yet, in discussing her goals for the coming session of Congress, which begins today, McCarthy demonstrated very little interest in parlaying that high celebrity into political power on Capitol Hill.
"I think I'm coming into this job very sober. It's an honor people elected me and I don't want to let them down," she said as she sorted through a pile of reception invitations and congratulatory notes her staff had stacked neatly on her desk.
"In all reality, I'm getting down to work and learning how Congress works - this is a learning process," she said.
In between the media interviews, McCarthy yesterday spent the day learning logistics. At a staff briefing, she asked about voting, and what the bells and lights on the members' clocks mean. She already knows it takes seven minutes to get from her seventh-floor office to the House floor to vote, but she wasn't quite clear on how, exactly, she was supposed to know when to be there.
"The important thing is to keep your pager battery charged," Legislative Director Sean McDonough told her.
As her chief of staff, Beneva Shulte, explained to McCarthy what she should do if she wanted to speak on the House floor today as it was voting on House rules and other procedural matters, McCarthy said, "Don't worry about it," suggesting that a floor speech on her first day was hardly on her agenda.
McCarthy, with the media hounding her, has to make very little effort to get her views known, though aides say she is prepared for - even looking forward to - the day when the attention dies down.
One of her next-door neighbors, Rep. Lynn Rivers, a Michigan Democrat beginning her second term, says any incoming freshman will have an eye-opening period to go through in the candidate-to-lawmaker transition.
"As a candidate, you're out there and you've got a support system around you and people are responsive and the party is helpful, and then you take office and it's time to deal with the nitty-gritty issues," she said.
Some of the mundane business began yesterday, as a couple of constituents stopped by - a page, Elizabeth Doyle, 16, from Mineola and Roy Simon, a Hofstra law professor - and mail began to pile up. She also seemed ready for the details in today's atmosphere of ethical correctness. She asked her staff to check with House ethicists about keeping a case of Long Island champagne delivered yesterday by a campaign volunteer from Rockville Centre.
But soon the hard votes will come, and, as Rivers said, McCarthy will learn that "no matter what position you take, someone is going to be angry - that's frustrating because no matter what you do someone is coming at you from one direction or another."
McCarthy, a registered Republican who ran for office as a Democrat, said yesterday that while she will support Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri for speaker today, she feels under no obligation to vote in lockstep with Democrats.
"Absolutely not. I don't feel any pressure," she said, noting that that is a benefit of becoming a member of Congress from outside the political circle.
"What's the worst thing that can happen to me?" she said with an as-if-it-mattered shrug. "I won't get re-elected."
Key Legislators Here are six legislators to watch during the 105th session of Congress, which convenes today. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Senate Majority Leader Former Ole Miss cheerleader and bankbench pal of Newt Gingrich, replaced Bob Dole as Republican leader in Congress and got high marks for brokering the compromises on welfare reform, minimum wage that salvaged the last session for Republicans.
Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Former Watergate Committee Republican counsel, sometime actor and presidential aspirant, Thompson gets party designation to lead congressional investigations of Clinton campaign fund-raising excesses as well as lingering probes of White House handling of travel office and FBI files.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Former Vietnam prisoner of war and an articulate moderate on military and foreign policy matters, he's a co-sponsor of the campaiogn reform package endorsed during the campaign by Clinton. As outrage over campaign excess grows, so will McCain's presence as the champion of campaign finance reform.
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) House Speaker Two years after taking Capitol Hill by storm, leading the attack on big government and orchestrating a parade of circus elephants on the front lawn of the Capitol, Gingrich begins his second term as a weakened leader. He remains the most formidable Republican in the House, but lingering ethical questions could threaten his effectuveness.
Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) House Budget Committee Chairman An ambitious champion of frugal government, Kasich will try to keep colleagues focused on reaching a balanced budget deal. Enormously popular with younger members of congress, his future support for Gingrich remains crucial.
Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.) House Ways and Means Chairman As power slips from Gingrich, Archer has launched a series of meetings with key administration officials. After meeting with Clinton Dec. 27, he's set sessions with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. He hopes to establish direct contact with Clinton and dominate any discussion of tax law changes.