WASHINGTON -- Representative Dick Zimmer, a freshman Republican, rose before the House for his maiden speech with a wry observation.
"I had hoped that my first speech on the floor of Congress could be on a less contentious subject -- like balancing the federal budget," he told his new colleagues.
Instead Mr. Zimmer, fresh from fiscal matters in the New Jersey Senate, helped send the United States into war.
"I voted on war, and I'm still asking pages how to get to the Rayburn Office Building," said Mr. Zimmer, still bewildered by the past week's rush of events. "It's been a dream-like experience."
Congressmen who have been here for decades said the decision on military action against the forces of Saddam Hussein was the most important and wrenching vote of their careers. But for the 44 freshman members, it was among their first yea-or-nay decisions.
"Most freshman congressmen will never remember the first vote they cast," Representative William Jefferson, D-La., told his hometown newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "But our class [of freshmen] will never forget."
"These guys came in, and on the first day had some very, very tough decisions," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Md.-5th, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the organization of all House Democrats. "Tough questions were being raised."
Freshman members find themselves reeling in the midst of a capital consumed with war. "There's enough confusion," said Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st. "This just added to the confusion."
Hundreds of war-related calls and letters have flooded congressional offices, but many of the new lawmakers, including Mr. Zimmer and Representative Thomas H. Andrews, D-Maine, still do not have a full staff to handle the load.
As a member of the first post-Cold War Congress, Mr. Andrews said he had hoped to use defense spending savings -- the so-called "peace dividend" -- to deal with the pressing needs of education and health care. "The atmosphere of opportunity and hope, and a new beginning outside of
war . . . it's gone," he said. "The 'peace dividend' is a memory."
Mr. Zimmer had expected to delve into fiscal matters and environmental issues, while Representative Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan had planned to use her new office to aid in the inner-city problems of Detroit.
But discussion among lawmakers has mostly been of Scuds and Patriots and "collateral damage," from Pentagon briefings. "The whole institution has ground to a halt," said Representative Scott L. Klug, R-Wis.
"This is part of everything I'm doing here. There's a cloud over the office, over the Capitol," said Mr. Andrews, who is organizing a meeting of freshman lawmakers to discuss the gulf war.
Interestingly, it is freshmen who are among the leaders of the opposition to the fighting. They include the Senate's only new member -- Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- along with Representatives Bernard Sanders, a Socialist and Independent from Vermont, and Representative Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Waters were among only six House members who voted against a resolution backing the troops and the president.
"If it was wrong to go to war before, it is no less wrong now that war has begun," Mrs. Waters declared. "The commission of an immoral act does not remedy its immorality."
Several freshman members said the experiences of the last two weeks have produced a strong bond among them. Mr. Klug recalled sitting up late with several of his new colleagues just before the House vote authorizing war.
"I think it brought a lot of us closer together," he said.
Others say the ensuing conflict has also made them more confident of their initial decision on war or sanctions.
Representative Robert E. Andrews, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey, acknowledged that the weight of war was a heavy one for the new lawmakers. But subsequent events have put it in perspective.
"It was a very difficult decision [to authorize war] -- that's what we're here to do," said Mr. Andrews, whose district includes the home county of Navy Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, the swollen and bruised POW who has appeared on Iraqi TV. "It's a hell of a lot more difficult to go in and fight it."