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Congress's new class of very seasoned rookies

For a freshman lawmaker, Lamar Alexander boasts a hefty résumé: Education secretary, Tennessee governor, two-time presidential candidate. But you wouldn't know it from his current office space.

As one of 64 new members - 11 senators and 53 representatives - taking up residence in the Capitol this week, Senator Alexander has been temporarily housed in a small, windowless warren across from the stationery store in the basement of the Dirksen building.

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"It's humbling," the Republican notes somewhat ruefully. "I have lots of experience. But ... in the US Senate, I'm a rookie."

He isn't the only newcomer whose credentials seem lofty for the job. As the freshly sworn-in class scrambles to hire staff and activate phone lines, observers are calling it the most experienced group in years.

Among the new faces roaming the halls are former cabinet secretaries such as Senator Alexander and his neighbor in the Dirksen basement, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) (another former presidential candidate). In the House, there's a former governor, a mayor, two state secretaries, and several top political operatives. The Senate includes a former senator, a mayor, and four congressmen; only 2 of the 11 new senators have no prior Washington connections.

As the first congressional class elected after Sept. 11, analysts say it's not surprising that these lawmakers are long on gravitas. Unlike previous years, when voters often favored "outsider" candidates with little political back-ground, voters in this cycle leaned toward experience.

As a result, while these members will still have learning curves, many may be shorter than normal. And a few are already on their way to becoming key players.

"This really is a highly talented group," says Charles Jones, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "These are people who understand the issues - and are familiar with the politics."

Many new members acknowledge they're coming into power at a critical - and sobering - time. Some of their first votes may be on war and security, and their actions could have long-lasting consequences. "We're defining our government and our liberties in ways that history books will write about," says Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D), a former senior adviser to President Clinton.

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It's also the first time in half a century that the president's party has taken control of both houses of Congress after a midterm election. For Democrats, that means much of the session could prove frustrating. "They own all three branches of government," says Mr. Emanuel. "I'm under no illusions as to how they can write the rules."

For the GOP, it's a unique opportunity to set the agenda. Incoming Republicans say their class is likely to be especially loyal to President Bush, who was responsible for recruiting many of them, and whose popularity on the campaign trail helped put some of them in office. Many campaigned on a platform of support for Bush, saying that their constituents would be better off with a member who could work closely with the White House.

"I've had the honor of knowing the president for 15 years, and we think alike on a lot of issues," says Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R).

"I'm a George W. Bush Republican," echoes Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan.

ON the other hand, the group's depth of experience may also mean they're less likely to simply follow orders. Indeed, many new members are savvy enough to take some credit for GOP gains - a subtle acknowledgment that the president needs them every bit as much as they need him. "They're calling us the majority-makers," says Ms. Miller, a former Michigan secretary of state who's taking over Democrat David Bonior's seat.

More than three-quarters of the incoming class has held public office, and those who haven't tend to have far-reaching political ties. A number come from political families, and many are taking over seats previously held by their parents, including Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D), and Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek (D). Outgoing Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) appointed his daughter Lisa to his seat, which he vacated for the governorship.

The House is also getting its first pair of sisters, with California's Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) joining her sister Loretta in office, as well as a pair of brothers, as Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) joins his brother Lincoln.

Ideologically, the class is harder to pin down. Many of the new GOP members in the House were elected with the support of a right-wing antitax group. But in the Senate, conservative icons such as South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms have been replaced by the more moderate Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senator Dole. That, combined with the replacement of Senate majority leader Trent Lott by Bill Frist of Tennessee, constitutes a significant shift, says Mr. Jones, "a different kind of Southern Republican representation."