Freshman Blumenthal learns his way around the Senate

WASHINGTON–He doesn’t have any staff yet, let alone committee assignments.  And his office is as small, as spare, and as drab as they come.

But this week Richard Blumenthal began to make the transition from a 20-year stint as Connecticut’s attorney general to the state’s junior U.S. Senator.

Blumenthal spent two days finding (and losing) his way around the U.S. Capitol. He and other incoming freshmen attended their first Senate caucus meetings, learned about parliamentary procedure, and stepped onto the Senate floor to see where they would cast their votes in the legislative battles that lie ahead.

“It’s been everything from nuts and bolts to issues of great moment,” Blumenthal said in a brief interview Tuesday afternoon in his temporary basement Senate office, before rushing to catch a flight back to Hartford. “And, of course, in between kind of finding my way around.”

Blumenthal wouldn’t admit to becoming hopelessly lost in the Capitol’s underground maze–just to getting a bit turned around here and there.

The highlight of his “freshman orientation,” as this week’s sessions for incoming lawmakers are called, was visiting the old Senate chamber and the current one.

After a dinner with Senate leaders on Monday night, the newly-elected lawmakers were led to the Senate floor, where Blumenthal said he realized for the first time that his predecessors in that chamber have their names inscribed in the desk drawers.

“So I looked at Ted Kennedy’s, which also had John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy’s names,” Blumenthal said. “Awesome is the only word for it …. The sense of history is overwhelming.”

Blumenthal joins a class of 13 new Republicans and 3 freshman Democrats. Two members of the latter group–West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Delaware’s Chris Coons–were sworn in immediately because they won special elections.

Blumenthal is the only Democrat who will have to wait until January for that officious ceremony. That means he will be dead last in seniority, at least among his Democratic colleagues.

So, Blumenthal said, it’s far from clear how he will fare when committee slots are doled out. He told Democratic leaders that his top choices are Commerce, Armed Services, Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs.

The state’s soon-to-be senior Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, already serves on Armed Services and chairs the Homeland Security panel. So, as Blumenthal acknowledged, he is unlikely to get a slot on either of those.

Outgoing Sen. Chris Dodd, whose decision to retire cleared the path for Blumenthal’s Senate bid, said his best piece of advice to Blumenthal was practical, if not very exciting: “Get a good office manager–someone who knows where everything is around here.”

Blumenthal said he spent part of his time in Washington interviewing prospective staff members, but he’s made no decisions yet. He said he’s putting together a constituent service operation that will be “second-to-none” and plans to be intimately involved in the handling of cases, as he was in the attorney general’s office.

Blumenthal said he didn’t think the transition, from running the AG’s office to being one of a 100 senators in an unwieldy chamber, would be that difficult. It’s a different forum–a legislature instead of the courtroom–but the job description is much the same, he said.

“This job is one of advocacy, which is what I’ve done,” Blumenthal said. “I can continue the fight, in fact maybe even more effectively.”

He noted for example, that as attorney general, he’s been pressing the Food and Drug Administration to ban alcoholic caffeinated drinks. As a senator, he might have more direct sway over that agency, which is accountable to Congress.

But for right now, he’s focused on more mundane tasks, whether that’s finding a good chief of staff or figuring out where he will live during the work-week in Washington. His wife spent Tuesday morning apartment hunting, and he’s decided on at least one thing: no roommates.