All special-election senators to be in place for lame-duck session

Three newly elected senators are getting a jump on their fellow members of the 2010 class as they're seated in time for critical votes that are expected to round out the lame-duck session.

Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) will be sworn in Monday, joining new Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), who joined the upper chamber after the election. All three senators saw their general election wins double as special election victories, thereby allowing them to be sworn into office before the 112th Congress convenes in January.

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In an interview with The Hill, Coons said he is already struggling with one of his first decisions: Whether to commute between Washington and Wilmington each night. Coons’ predecessor in the seat, Vice President Biden, developed the famous habit throughout his nearly 30-year Senate career, but Coons said he isn’t sure if he can replicate it. The senator has a wife and three children in Wilmington.

“I already hear there will be a difficult tension between being effective in Washington and being engaged with my constituents and my family,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out and assess how to strike that balance.”

Biden isn’t making it easy, Coons said. The two talk frequently, and Coons said Biden is adamant in his advice to go home as much as possible.

“It’s the most poignant and personal advice he gave me, after the election, to stay disciplined in commuting home each night,” Coons said. “He said, ‘Sleep on a couch or a cot in the office. Keep it uncomfortable — even when it’s late, even when I won’t be able to be home long.’ It’s about keeping pressure on myself.”

Other advice poured in from incumbent senators last week, when Coons and other newly elected senators sat through a three-day orientation class developed by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Senators were encouraged to limit their focus to a handful of issues to study and avoid taking on too many committee assignments.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also advised senators to invest time in getting to know members across the aisle in individual, social settings, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) offered to take any senator to breakfast — and pick up the tab.

“What we’re told is that sort of effort by an incoming senator to find time with others is a wise investment,” Coons said. “Even if it’s difficult to reach bipartisan solutions on the high-profile issues, the day-to-day blocking-and-tackling of the Senate is over critical things like food safety, and getting to know others whom you’re going to have to work with is time well-spent.”

All three newly sworn-in senators have taken over the same offices as the senators they have replaced — Manchin has moved into Suite 311 in the Hart Senate Office Building, which was occupied by Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.V.), whom Manchin appointed following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) this summer.

Coons has moved in to Suite 383 in the Russell Senate Office Building. Those are the rooms that Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) occupied for nearly two years following Biden’s move to the executive branch. Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Miner (D) appointed Kaufman to replace Biden.

Both Manchin and Coons also retained their predecessors’ committee assignments, and Coons even took over Kaufman’s Delaware office leases in Wilmington and Milford — right down to the phone numbers.

Coons will serve on the Armed Services, Judiciary, Foreign Relations and Homeland Security and Government Affairs committees, while Manchin takes over Goodwin’s seats on the Armed Services, Budget, Rules and Administration, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.

Like Manchin and Coons, Kirk will take over his predecessor’s office — the Russell 387 suite of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to fill out President Obama’s term. A Kirk aide offered no comment on Kirk’s staffing decisions or committee assignments.

Manchin and Coons are likely to retain many of their predecessors’ staffers. Coons estimates about 25 Kaufman staffers are staying on with him at least through the lame-duck session, while a spokesperson for Manchin said the senator “is still exploring staff options.”