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Getting into office doesn't get you one right away

| Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - In the bowels of the Dirksen Office Building, so far into the basement that the ceilings are too low to stand a flag pole at the door, the transitional office of Sen.-elect Bob Casey Jr. will open for business this week.

Here, in room B-40, there's not much furniture yet, other than some blue leather chairs, a few hand-me-down desks and some lamps. There are no pictures on the blinding white walls. Most of the computers and phone lines won't work until Wednesday, but it really doesn't matter because there are few employees to use them.

After swearing-in ceremonies to mark the transition to a new Congress, the freshman senator from Pennsylvania and other incoming lawmakers from across the nation will start at the bottom rung of the seniority ladder in tiny, temporary offices.

"It's humbling, but it's all part of the equation. You have to work your way up. I'd like to think that by March, I'll be in my permanent office," Casey said, adding that he's in the process of hiring staff.

During the holiday recess, as retiring and defeated lawmakers moved out to make way for new members of Congress, furniture and equipment lined hallways in the Capitol and adjacent office buildings in the Capitol Complex. Professional movers, office aides carrying cardboard boxes and government maintenance employees hurried to complete work in time for the transition.

The already confusing process became even more complicated with the enhanced security leading to the weekend's events to honor President Gerald Ford, who died Dec. 26 at the age of 93. The 38th president will lie in state in the rotunda until his body is moved to the Washington National Cathedral for services Tuesday morning.

In a phone interview during his last week as state treasurer, Casey, who also has served as state auditor general, said he enjoyed what he described as "great office space" while serving in Pennsylvania's government.

Casey -- who won the Senate seat after defeating Republican Rick Santorum, who held the office since 1995 -- is about 94th on the list of senators vying for offices doled out by seniority. It is a process that could take months, according to Jim Brown, Casey's chief of staff.

In the meantime, the Scranton Democrat will concentrate on work.

He said he'll focus on his party's priorities of ethics reform, health care and the minimum wage. He's also looking forward to working on the Agriculture Committee -- something he views as very important to his home state.

"We'll also be working on foreign relations, paying close attention to the war in Iraq," he said. "We're going to have three days of hearings over several weeks, beginning in January."

Meanwhile, as incoming lawmakers from around the country jockey for space and learn their way about the Capitol complex, U.S. Rep.-elect Jason Altmire, a McCandless Democrat, can draw upon experience to guide him.

"I've walked those halls before," he said.

Altmire, who upset U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart to represent the 4th Congressional District, once worked on Capitol Hill for former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, of Florida. His staff has been hired and he's moved into room 1419 of the Longworth House Office Building.

Hart -- Pennsylvania's first female representative in the U.S. House and a three-term Republican congresswoman -- vacated the office on Dec. 15, Altmire said.

"I want to be ready to go on the first day. I feel pretty good that I can hit the ground running," he said.

Altmire added that he'll seek help from his assigned mentor, Rep. Adam Schiff, of California's 29th District, and veteran members of the Pennsylvania delegation, including Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who represents the 14th District, and Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Johnstown, who represents the 12th District.

"I would lean on them for advice," he said. "The Democratic Caucus has really gone out of their way to be helpful from the very start. They rolled out the red carpet for us and are treating us as part of the team."

Murtha, who will become the chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations Committee when the Democrats take majority control of the House this week, said he's served as a mentor to many freshman lawmakers since joining Congress in 1974. He said he intends "to really work" with the incoming class, particularly the Pennsylvanians.

"They're coming in at a very historic time, a very challenging time. The first year is the toughest -- you're trying to learn your way around and at the same time, take care of your district," Murtha said.

Back in the Senate, Casey agreed.

"At a time like this, I'm so excited about serving ... I feel a sense of obligation to do the job well and to represent the people of Pennsylvania to the best of my ability," said Casey, the son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey.

Months from now, when the dust settles and he's in a permanent spot, Casey has plans for how he'll decorate his office. There will be pictures of his wife and daughters, a framed prayer card from his father's funeral, some mementoes from his tenure in state government.

"I'll bring those things in to remind me of my family and where I am from," he said.

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