The seven congressmen, all from Texas, were trying to get back in time for a Tuesday night vote on an aviation safety bill when the flight landed without incident, a spokesman for one of the representatives said. No injuries were reported among the 128 crew and passengers.
FAA spokeswoman Lynn Tierney said Flight 458 from Houston initiated a rapid descent to bring the plane to an altitude below where adding oxygen was necessary and was given priority to land at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for passenger and Rep. Nick Lampson, said his boss told him "there was absolutely no panic on the plane." Lampson told Kincaid the plane's oxygen masks dropped down.
"Continental Airline's personnel and staff were exceptional; executing what seemed to me a textbook performance in emergency procedure. I was very impressed," Lampson said in a release.
Also on the flight were Reps. Paul, Ted Poe, John Carter, Solomon P. Ortiz, Ciro Rodriguez, and Henry Cuellar, Kincaid said. The group was trying to make a vote on the Aviation Safety Enhancement Act.
Poe told CBS affiliate KHOU the flight was about an hour late leaving Houston because of mechanical difficulties with an engine. He said things went downhill from there not long after taking off from Bush Intercontinental Airport.
"Suddenly, we started to descend more rapidly than normal and the oxygen masks came out," Poe said.
The pilots told everyone to fasten their seatbelts.
"There wasn't any talk because a lot of people had their oxygen masks on," according to Poe. "Everyone seemed to be quite calm."
The flight landed about 20 minutes after the scare began.
"You're thinking of everything, of course. You're thinking of all the possibilities," Poe said. "But the pilots did a great job of getting us down. And when we got down we saw all the fire trucks on the runway, just like in the movies."
For Poe and the others, it was an unforgettable experience.
"It was exciting to say the least," Poe said. "Glad to see that landing gear come down."
DeeAnn Thigpen, a spokeswoman for Poe, said the flight is frequently used by members of the Texas delegation who have returned home for the weekend. The 1:05 p.m. flight is the latest one that allows them to get back to Washington in time for 6:30 p.m. votes, she said.
Paul and his wife were aboard the flight and left New Orleans by 5:30 p.m., said Jesse Benton, a spokesman for Paul's non-profit Campaign For Liberty.
"There's no cause for alarm," Benton said.
Airline spokeswoman Julie King said the airline was working to get passengers on other flights.
The emergency landing was the third time in two days a plane was diverted over cabin pressure issues. A US Airways flight and a Northwest Airlines flight were diverted to airports in Kentucky and Wisconsin on Monday over cabin pressure issues.