At 55, and with roughly 20 years of experience in state, local and party politics under his belt, Democratic Sen. Timothy Kaine, a former Virginia governor, said he is adjusting to life inside the Capitol Beltway.
"The frustration for governors or executives who go into the Senate is suddenly you're 94th in seniority and you're in a basement office with no windows and nobody's exactly waiting for you to make the final decision about anything," he told students Wednesday in Larry Sabato's Introduction to American Politics class at the University of Virginia.
The governorship was about making executive decisions, but senators succeed by becoming subject matter experts and tailoring their efforts to affect change, Kaine said.
"Frankly, when you think about [being a senator] that way, it's less stressful than being an executive," he said.
Kaine opened up to nearly 400 students crammed into the stadium-style lecture hall about his path to political life before fielding questions on foreign and domestic policy.
He hit the 90-day mark in office Tuesday, the same day he rolled out his first Senate bill, which he said he plans to file when the legislative body reconvenes next week.
The bill, the Troop Talent Act of 2013, would help prepare military veterans transitioning to civilian life by documenting the skill sets they learn in the military and translating them into terms that prospective employers understand.
Like many problems, Kaine said that a relatively high rate of unemployment among veterans — especially for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which federal labor statistics show was 1.7 percent above the national average of 7.7 percent in February — comes down to a failure to communicate.
There was a time in American history when veterans could tell prospective employers that they were ranked an E-6 in the U.S. Navy or served in the U.S. Army's Ordinance Corps, and most would know exactly what that service entailed, Kaine said.
Forty years after the end of conscription, the gap between military and civilian life is widening, according to a 2011 survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, which found that less than one half of one percent of Americans served on active duty in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Kaine, whose eldest son serves in the Marine Corps, said his bill marries two of four areas that he intends to focus on while in office: the military and talent development.
Kaine is a member of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Budget committees.
He said the bill would have minimal financial impact and appears to have engendered widespread support in its nascent stage. It will have to pass through Armed Services sub and full committee hearings before heading to the Senate floor for a vote, he said.
After he introduced the bill, Sabato's students grilled Kaine on everything from civility in politics to gun control and gay marriage.
Kaine campaigned on a return to civility when he ran against former Virginia Gov. George Allen last year for the chance to replace retiring Sen. Jim Webb.
He said the dysfunction and partisan rancor over protracted debt talks in Washington arise from a 60-40 split between ideological disagreements and a failure to communicate. He credited stints in Richmond City Council and his time as governor with teaching him the kind of consensus-building skills that he will need in Washington.
Kaine said his personal and political experiences have re-framed his views on gay marriage.
"My church has some teachings that aren't in accord with my beliefs," said the self-described devout Catholic and 'creature of his time.' "I just don't feel like God ever made a second-class person."
He said he plans to support pending legislation limiting gun magazines to 10 bullets each, and is "favorably inclined" to support a prohibition against assault rifles.
Kaine likened the potential regulation of Second Amendment rights to limits on First Amendment freedoms, which fall short of protecting child pornography.
"I thought everything he had to say was consistent with party ideology, but I appreciated his personal insights, and the look into the life of a new senator," said Abbey Schechtel, 19, who self-identifies as a Republican.
Kaine told the group of mostly late teens and early twenty-somethings about what he called an unanticipated foray into politics, and touched on several life-shaping experiences that informed his aspirations.
"The personal story really helps me to understand and get more exposure to the American system," said Hua Xin, 24, a native of China who said she signed up for the class to learn more about her adoptive home.