Springfield State Journal Register

November 16, 2004

Obama gets oriented in the Senate

Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON --Standing in the ornate lobby just outside the Senate chamber, Democrat Barack Obama took a football from Republican John Thune and drew back his arm as if to throw it.

"He's a lefty," joked Thune, leaving it unclear whether he was referring to Obama's throwing arm or his politics.

It's the kind of bipartisan spirit the Senate orientation leaders undoubtedly hoped to inspire among newly elected senators. On the first full day of Senate orientation at least, the two superstars of their respective political parties seemed to be getting along well and there was no obvious sign of the partisan battles that lie ahead.

Obama, who will be the only African-American senator once he's sworn in on Jan. 4 as Illinois' new senator, gained national attention through his speech at the Democratic National Convention. Thune dealt a demoralizing blow to Senate Democrats when he defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota on Nov. 2.

Both Obama and Thune have been mentioned as possible future presidential contenders.

This week, however, they are inundated with details - from the logistics of how to set up a Senate office to briefings on Senate parliamentary procedures and ethics rules.

"I've been overwhelmed with information. I learned that I won't learn the procedures of the Senate in one hour," said Obama.

Over lunch Monday, the newly elected senators and their spouses received tips from more experienced senators on how to juggle Senate work and family life.

"Obviously for us with small children, we've got a lot of big decisions to make on how to protect our kids and keep our marriage strong," Obama said.

He and his wife, Michelle, said they were encouraged by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and his wife, Frances.

"They have eight kids. So we figured if they can do it eight, we can manage with two," Obama said.

On Tuesday, Obama will join other Senate Democrats in electing their leaders for the 109th Congress, including Illinois' more senior senator, Dick Durbin, as minority whip. On Tuesday night, new and current senators will dine together at the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Obama and other newly elected senators will have breakfast with President Bush at the White House. Obama also plans to have lunch with retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whom he's replacing. And he's trying to squeeze in time to pay his respects to the Senate's most senior Democrat, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Obama also is reminded of the Senate's time-honored respect for seniority when he goes back to his temporary office in the basement of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. He's working out of a small space with two desks, one table, two phones and a small television. A permanent office probably won't be assigned to him until March after senators with more seniority vacate theirs for more desirable digs.

Obama, who expects to ultimately hire 50 or 60 people for his Washington office, already has received more than 500 job applicants. In the evenings, Obama and his transition team have been meeting with chiefs of staff for other senators for ideas on how to set up his office, "very nuts and bolts stuff."

"I'm tapping into friends and colleagues who have worked in Washington before to give me some sense of how to shape the office before I make those decisions," said Obama, adding his main priorities were ensuring his office provided good constituent services.

Obama, who arrived Sunday, plans to return to Illinois Thursday afternoon to get home in time to take his two daughters to the circus, said his spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Meanwhile, Obama's name is circulating as a potential vice chair for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money to help elect Democrats to the Senate.

While Obama already helped raise funds for other Democrats during this past campaign, he said it's "premature" for him to be thinking of such a position after just two days in town.

"People have had conversations about how I could be helpful to the Democrat party in general... But there haven't been any specific conversations," Obama said. "...There's a whole host of ways I can be helpful. I'm going to hear from the leadership on where they think I can plug in."