Heck gets oriented for role in Congress

WASHINGTON -- By his third day in the nation's capital as an incoming member of Congress, Joe Heck on Tuesday had collected his laminated photo ID. He had interviewed potential chiefs of staff. His wife and campaign manager were preparing to scout suites in the Capitol complex, and he already had decided he will sleep on a pullout couch in his office rather than rent in a pricey neighborhood.

Heck is deep into a weeklong freshman orientation, with 104 other U.S. House newcomers whose races have been decided. Among them are 84 Republican freshmen who, like Heck, carry with them messages of the voter frustration that propelled their victories.

Upon arrival, each new member was issued a BlackBerry and a laptop, and binders with information on everything from House ethics rules to security procedures to how to hire a professional staff. They have been shepherded from briefing to briefing with little hallway time, a process Heck said was fast-paced and invigorating.

"It's just like going to college," he said. "You register, you go down the line, you get your ID card, you get your material and keep on working your way through. I haven't learned the secret handshake yet; I guess that comes later."

Already much is expected of the incoming Republicans -- who collectively make up a third of the House GOP caucus and who are reminiscent of the Republican freshmen class of 1994, which also helped take the House majority with promises of big changes.

While that class in its initial years worked with former President Bill Clinton to enact welfare reform and balance the budget, over time it gained only a mixed reputation, with one of its members. Bob Ney of Ohio, convicted of corruption and several others, including Nevada Sen. John Ensign, caught in sex scandal.

Heck said the new freshmen have discussed that legacy.

"The point hasn't been lost,'' Heck said. "The idea is to make sure we understand why we are here. We are coming in with a message from the folks who sent us here, and that is in the back of our minds and driving everything we do."

Heck, 49, said he plans a careful path, seeking to avoid missteps in a swing district that has flipped from Republican to Democrat and back to Republican in recent elections. He defeated incumbent Democrat Dina Titus by fewer than 2,000 votes.

He said he'll initially focus on strategies to encourage small business, perhaps by cutting red tape at the Small Business Administration.

"I have heard from small business folks who are thinking of starting a business or expanding their business but by the time they navigate the process through the SBA the opportunity has been lost," Heck said. "We need to streamline the process."

Heck, like just about all Republicans, plans to participate in a moratorium on earmarks in the new Congress, even as it remains unclear exactly what would be considered an earmark and what would be legitimate spending.

Heck said he will seek any available money for Nevada projects, but doesn't foresee "putting a highway project or a bridge into a defense or education bill. Those are the kinds of things wrong with the process."

An Army reservist and emergency room surgeon, Heck said he will rely on his military experience to stay grounded in office. His wife, Lisa, and teen-age son will continue to live in Las Vegas while he commutes on weekends.

In Washington, he said he plans to sleep in his office. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., does the same in his.

"After 20 years in the military, I have slept in a lot worse places," he said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.