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Capitol’s Most Exclusive Ticket

In a town consumed by power, those who hold real influence often shy from publicity. Take the small group of corporate lobbyists who meet nearly every Thursday morning with the Senate’s top Republican aides in Room 347 of the Russell Office Building.

The session is by far the most exclusive gathering of lobbyists on Capitol Hill: The meeting could be held in a Senate subway car on the way to the Capitol. The half-dozen trade association lobbyists who have attended the top-secret meeting since it was revived three years ago are among the most prominent in their field.

Yet the meeting has never been publicized. In fact, none of the Senate aides, Republican activists and lobbyists who have attended recent sessions was willing to be quoted by name discussing it.

“We don’t want this to become a meeting that every other lobbyist in Washington wants to be in,” said one regular attendee. “Once word gets out that this meeting takes place, it is going to end up killing the meeting.”

Today, the roster includes Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors; Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business; Lee Culpepper of the National Restaurant Association; and Mike Baroody of the National Association of Manufacturers. Business Roundtable President and CEO John Castellani joined the meetings in the past year.

Other frequent participants in the meetings are Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Don Fierce, a Republican lobbyist with Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock who helped organize the original Thursday Group in the 1990s. Paul Beckner, head of Citizens for a Sound Economy, sat in on the sessions until he announced he was leaving his job.

For nearly three years, the participants have met each Thursday when the Senate is in session to bounce ideas off each other, brainstorm on strategy and discuss the chamber’s schedule for the week.

The origins of the meeting can be traced back a decade when former House Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Boehner of Ohio and the late Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Paul Coverdell of Georgia met with lobbyists each week in sessions that became known on Capitol Hill as the Thursday Group.

Beginning in 1994, the Thursday Group allowed Republican lawmakers to solicit ideas and get advice from scores of Republican lobbyists. 

The meetings, held over the course of two years, became best known for enabling the GOP to conceive and draft the “Contract with America” that helped the party take over the House and Senate.

Not long into the Republicans’ reign on Capitol Hill, however, the group disbanded.

The meetings were not revived until 2001 when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I) of Vermont left the Republican Party and handed control of the Senate to Democrats.

Republican aides, led by former staffer and now-lobbyist Jade West, wanted to “figure out how to make Senate Republicans relevant again,” said one lobbyist involved in the meetings. “We didn’t have enough strength inside the Senate, so we needed some help from the outside.”

With the six association lobbyists representing companies that employ millions of workers, the group’s participants embody “a very significant and very representative cross-section of the economy and the business community,” one attendee said. “When you have the Business Roundtable on one end and the NFIB on the other, you cover huge and different segments of the economy,” the lobbyist said, referring to the trade group for the nation’s largest and smallest businesses.

The sessions are run by Lawrence Wilcox, staff director for the Republican Policy Committee, and are attended by several of the chamber’s top GOP aides, including Eric Ueland and Lee Rawls, both senior aides to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); Kyle Simmons, staff director to Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); and Sharon Soderstrom, the top Republican aide on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

On rare occasions, a representative from the White House sits in on the meeting.

The Hill is overflowing with other, less exclusive gatherings between lobbyists and staffers — nearly a dozen closed-door sessions convene on Capitol Hill in a typical week. The best known is the meeting Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) has with scores of Republican lobbyists.

But participants in the Thursday meeting say the smaller audience can’t be beat.

“The value of the smaller group is that [the meetings] are much more intimate,” said one Republican aide. “You can bounce things back and forth with a few folks who are association heads downtown. With the larger groups, you have to assume that things are going to get leaked out.”

Several of the lobbyists invited to the gathering have deep roots in the Republican Party.

Baroody’s father was among the founders of the modern conservative movement, and the younger Baroody has been a fixture at the NAM for years. Van Dongen and Norquist cut their teeth helping to round up business support for the tax-cut bills in the Reagan administration. Fierce is a former top aide at the Republican National Committee.

Culpepper is the only participant with a history working with Democrats. He worked for eight years for two Georgia Democrats — former Sen. Sam Nunn and one-time Rep. Richard Ray. However, he now considers himself a Republican and has been long trusted by GOP insiders as one of their own.

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