Oops! Freshmen share their gaffes

Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) was saved from what he would have considered his most embarrassing moment during his first term in Congress.

When lawmakers were voting for Speaker of the House at the beginning of the 110th session, Hall was poised to sing, rather than speak, his preference for Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The musician-turned-legislator — known for writing the song “Still the One” — came up with the idea of belting out, “Pelosi, I’m voting for Speaker Pelosi,” to the tune of “West Side Story’s” “Maria.”

But before he hit the first note, a colleague intervened, telling Hall that Mike Pappas, a former GOP lawmaker from New Jersey, once sang, “Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr,” on the House floor and lost the next election to Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Hall said he realized it might be “the kiss of death” to sing in the House chamber.

“It was a bad idea,” he said. But one he’ll remember.

As the 110th Congress comes to a close, members of its freshman class recalled their first two years in Washington as a lightning-speed lesson on how the federal government works. Many said they are finishing their first term with more know-how, but they also remembered their favorite moments, goofs and missed cues.

“I’ve been acutely aware the whole time that we’re standing on the front pages of history,” Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) said. One of her fond memories is from her time as a conferee for the Head Start bill. At the conference, Pelosi had a child in her lap, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) suddenly began singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

“Soon everyone was singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ ” Shea-Porter recalled.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) made no mention of any embarrassing moments while discussing her first two years in Congress. However, she had to live down jokes about her behavior at the 2007 State of the Union address, when she was caught on national television grabbing and holding onto President Bush’s shoulder so he would sign her program, give her a hug and kiss, and pose for a photo with her.

With so many new demands come numerous opportunities to mess up. Several freshmen weren’t too proud to share.

Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) both initially had voting difficulties.

Yarmuth almost missed his first recorded vote. A reporter from his hometown newspaper was interviewing him, and he didn’t realize that he wouldn’t be able to hear the voting buzzers from where he was doing the interview.

“Somebody came running out to get me,” he said. Unluckily for him, Yarmuth had an audience to appreciate his tardiness. Mike Ward, the last Democrat who represented Yarmuth’s district, had come to Washington for Yarmuth’s swearing-in.

“He was in the front row, laughing at me,” Yarmuth said.

Shuler remembered rushing to a vote and then pushing the wrong button, forcing him to run to the front of the House floor and yell, “Hold on! Hold on!” in front of his colleagues.

“It happened to me once,” he said. “I try not to let it happen.”

It wasn’t the voting process that tripped up Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.). It was her shoes. “I love to wear high heels,” she said, “and I’ve fallen quite a few times.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is still trying to figure out the Capitol’s labyrinthine hallways. She said her constantly busy schedule sometimes gets the best of her, and she has walked into the wrong room or the wrong meeting on more than one occasion, leaving people to wonder, “What is she doing here?”

“This place is a maze, so you can get lost,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Many freshmen described their introduction to the Hill as flood-like.

“It’s kind of like drinking through a fire hose,” said Shuler of his first few weeks in the Capitol. “There’s so much to take in.”

“Information is coming at you like a fast fire hydrant,” Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) said of the pace in the House.

“We started out drinking from a fire hose,” Hall said of his initiation into Congress.

The gushing flow of congressional duties not only requires agility in current events and public policy, but demands a complete lifestyle change, many freshmen said. Shuler talked about the difficulty of maintaining a work-life balance, especially when trying to put “family first.”

Others freshmen were blindsided by the sheer physical toll Congress takes on its members.

“You don’t eat right, you don’t sleep right,” said Yarmuth. He estimated that, in his 21 months in office, he has attended more than 1,000 events, ranging from neighborhood festivals to church picnics, manufacturing-plant visits and speaking engagements.

Hall, too, said Congress’s physical demands have weighed on him — literally.

“I picked up the Freshman 20, as they say,” he said. Prior to coming to Washington, he routinely worked out at the gym and whizzed downhill on skis (Hall is a certified ski instructor).

“Now the only exercise I get is running back and forth to votes,” Hall said. He recommended that new members have their staffs regularly schedule gym time, even if they have to label it in the calendar as “ ‘health maintenance workshop’ or something like that.”

One of Rep. Betty Sutton’s (D-Ohio) favorite memories came in a moment of solitude. She remembers walking through Statuary Hall late one night after leaving the House floor.

“My high heels were clicking, echoing through that floor,” she said.

At that moment, Sutton was hit by the history that surrounded her.

“I just stopped, and I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “That’s kind of the way I still feel.”

Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.

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