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Former White House aide Clay Johnson engaged in one of Washington’s time-honored traditions Wednesday — kissing the ring of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

Johnson, who has been nominated for a top post at the powerful Office of Management and Budget, had a private meeting with Byrd, who has placed a “hold” on his nomination. The meeting took place in the influential Senate Democrat’s Capitol office and lasted about an hour.

The tussle over Johnson’s political fate has become even more critical following OMB Director Mitch Daniels’ announcement on Tuesday that he will leave that post soon to return to Indiana. Daniels is widely expected to run for governor of the Hoosier State.

Nancy Dorn, another senior official at OMB, has also recently left the agency to become a lobbyist for corporate giant General Electric. A replacement for Dorn has not been announced yet, potentially leaving the top three jobs at OMB unfilled when Daniels exits.

But Byrd, who gave a letter to Johnson after the meeting outlining why he is unhappy with the White House, did not release his hold on Johnson, despite the personal appeal from the nominee.

Byrd’s concerns center on Bush’s plan to open up hundreds of thousands of federal jobs to competition to private contractors — at least 425,000 jobs, in the West Virginia Democrat’s estimate. Bush’s proposal has been strongly opposed by unions representing government employees and their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, and Johnson’s nomination has become hostage to an intense behind-the-scenes power struggle between the two branches on the issue.

“As I mentioned in our meeting today, I have serious concerns about the implementation of the President’s Management Agenda,” Byrd wrote in his letter to Johnson.

“The Administration’s efforts to overhaul the federal workforce thus far have been undertaken without meaningful legislative oversight or input from Congress. Rather than saying that ‘all too often Congress is part of the government’s managerial problems,’ as the President asserts in his Management Agenda, the White House should help Congress by making the reform process more transparent.”

Byrd’s aide said the Senator appreciated meeting with Johnson but has not shifted his position on the matter.

“Mr. Johnson told Senator Byrd if confirmed he would work to keep an open channel of communication and work to address the concerns about the contracting issue,” said Tom Gavin, Byrd’s spokesman.

But when asked if the hold was lifted following the meeting, Gavin said, “To the best of my knowledge, no.”

OMB officials declined to comment on the meeting or the Bush administration’s response to Byrd’s letter, saying that White House policy is not to comment on pending nominations.

Union insiders, though, describe the fight over Johnson as critical. “It’s certainly a big deal,” said one top union strategist. “The whole labor movement is concerned about this proposal.”

Johnson, a longtime Bush friend and confidant, formerly oversaw the White House’s personnel office. In the days leading up to Daniels’ announcement that he would leave OMB, there was speculation that Johnson would be the likely choice to replace him as director.

Johnson, though, has reportedly told GOP Congressional aides that he is not interested in becoming OMB director. With that in mind, other candidates have been mentioned for the post, including White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolton and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy J. Muris, according to Senate GOP sources.

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