Ensign learns about Senate
WASHINGTON – Sen.-elect John Ensign negotiated the ornate hallways around the Senate chamber, hustling to another meeting Wednesday to learn about the world’s ”greatest deliberative body.”
Then an aide called his name and ushered him back to the meeting – in the direction whence he came.
”I knew that,” he said with a smile.
Ensign joined 10 other freshmen senators for a whirlwind week of seminars, tours and class photos. Staffing, scheduling and discussion of common frustrations were among the first lessons, along with a tutorial from the Senate’s unofficial historian, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
But if the schedule sounded like cramming for an exam, briefings Tuesday ended with a formal dinner at the Supreme Court building. Ensign sat at GOP Majority Leader Trent Lott’s table, next to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
”It was fascinating. I’ve just been in awe for two days, kind of pinching myself each day – am I really here,” he said. ”It was my first time even in the Supreme Court building.”
Ensign arrived at a time when the Senate appears split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. He was one of only two Republicans nationwide to claim a Democratic Senate seat, succeeding the retiring Richard Bryan.
”To get anything done in this Congress, you’re going to have to reach across the aisle,” he said.
Although Ensign ran against him two years ago, Sen. Harry Reid, the assistant minority leader, said he has a ”warm, close relationship” with Ensign and his family.
Reid said the two would work together for Nevada, as they had when Ensign was in the House, in fighting storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and gaining a meal-tax deduction for gambling.
”He and I always worked well together when he was in the House,” Reid said. ”Frankly, we have no choice but to cooperate. You can’t have two senators going different directions.”
Ensign lost the race against Reid by 428 votes in 1998 – one of the closest campaigns in Nevada’s history. But Ensign claimed victory Nov. 7 – his 13th wedding anniversary – with a 15-point win over Democrat Ed Bernstein.
Ensign had been promoted as a rising Republican star when, at age 36, he won his first House race with the Republican tide that made Newt Gingrich speaker in 1994.
Ensign has planned to begin aggressively, working to reverse the Republican leadership’s support of a nuclear waste dump in Nevada. While Democrats argued that their party would prevent the site from being developed, Ensign maintained that the best strategy was to elect someone who could make the case to fellow Republicans.
”Every single day deals we deal the nuclear waste issue,” said Ensign, who said he already discussed recycling nuclear waste with GOP Sen. Pete Domenici, the Budget Committee chairman.
Ensign and Sen.-elect George Allen of Virginia are the only Republicans in the freshman class. Because of uncertainty about the presidential election, the two must wait until January for committee assignments. A permanent office may not open up until April.
”We get low draft choices,” Allen said.
Ensign said his prospects are for serving on banking, commerce, judiciary or budget.
”It doesn’t look like Armed Services will be available,” he said.
Allen suggested the delay might make it difficult to hire staffers with expertise in his committee assignments. But Ensign said Republican defeats have left staffers looking for jobs.
”We have a plethora of staff out there – really talented staff,” he said. ”If I was coming in new, I would be more concerned about that.”
Ensign had several meetings scheduled with senators from both parties. One he already buttonholed was GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a former housemate from when Ensign served in the House, about a bill aiming to outlaw gambling on college sporting events.
”This is building relationships,” Ensign said.
On the Net: The Senate is at http://www.senate.gov
Ensign’s campaign site is http://ensign4nevada.com
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