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Reid to Enlist K Street

When Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) rose from Minority Leader to Majority Leader in June 2001, more than 60 Democratic lobbyists attended a breakfast in his honor at the Hyatt Regency’s Capitol View Club.

Several of the lobbyists had known Daschle for more than 25 years, and many were part of an inner circle the South Dakotan turned to for legislative advice and fundraising dollars.

Hours after Sen. Harry Reid was sworn in for a fourth term on Jan. 4, many of these same lobbyists descended upon a Capitol Hill steak house to congratulate the Nevada Democrat for being chosen by his peers as the new Senate Democratic leader. Daschle lost his own bid for a fourth term in November, and lobbyists immediately began to reach out to the Nevadan, a quiet Westerner who had mined lobbyists for campaign donations but rarely sought their legislative counsel.

“It was like a scene out of ‘The Godfather,’” said one lobbyist at the reception. “He was in the back room and people were lined up to greet him and pay homage.”

Now that Reid is tasked with a new set of responsibilities as Democratic leader, his approach to K Street is about to change.

For the past two months, Reid’s senior staff and trusted allies have been working to formalize a working relationship with K Street Democrats as part of a bigger plan to ramp up communications efforts to promote their legislative goals.

So far, there have been at least six meetings at various downtown offices, the most recent gathering hosted last week by James Houton of Microsoft.

Later this week, Reid will appear before the Monday Group — a bimonthly meeting of lobbyists and Senate staffers held at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters — to discuss the new Congress.

“A lot of what we have been doing is meeting with Democrats downtown who have never had dealings with Senator Reid,” said Jimmy Ryan, a former senior Reid aide who is now a Citigroup vice president.

Ryan, who is helping organize the K Street effort, described the meetings as a “broad introduction” to the new Senate leadership as well as a chance to emphasize Reid’s desire to have substantive “outreach and communications with Democrats, in particular.”

Ryan is working with Kevin Kayes, Reid’s chief counsel, on this outreach effort. Kayes most recently served as the minority staff director for the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee before joining Reid’s leadership staff in November.

“I think Senator Reid understands that K Street is a big part of the whole game,” said Jonathon Jones, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who was a co-founder of the Monday Group. “We just cannot ignore it. We have talented people downtown that want to help beyond the needs of their clients.”

For Democratic lobbyists, these meetings offer face time with senior Democratic aides, which is indispensible given that the chamber is the only base of political leverage Democrats have now that Washington is essentially controlled by Republicans.

“There is no other play in Washington for Democrats other than the Senate,” lamented one Democratic lobbyist, who asked not to be named for fear of angering his employer.

A handful of lobbyists and strategists are expected to help Reid in the coming months to formalize this hybrid politics-and-policy network. It is similar to ones created by other Senate leaders such as Daschle and Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

“We are just building on existing relationships to get our message out,” said Susan McCue, Reid’s chief of staff. “There are a lot of layers here: business, political, advocacy and communications.”

In addition to strengthening ties to Democratic lobbyists, Reid is expected to turn to a handful of Democratic consultants including Jim Margolis of the firm GMMB, Anita Dunn and Bill Knapp of Squier Knapp Dunn, and Carter Eskew of the Glover Park Group for political advice.

“Being in the leader’s office is an incredibly intense experience,” Eskew said. “It is nice to reach outside the echo chamber for an independent and informal sounding board to get another perspective.”

A Republican leadership aide said it is not surprising that Reid is seeking to enlist K Street in the effort to promote the Democratic message beyond the Beltway.

“It is critically important to be able to talk to good political people [and] good strategic advisers,” said the aide. “In terms of communications, [lobbyists] are an important part of this mechanism by helping spread the message through association newsletters and Web sites.”

Still, the aide suggested that Democrats are “laps behind Republicans” in using lobbyists to help sell their legislative agenda.

Democratic lobbyists acknowledge that it will be difficult to replicate the Republican leadership’s success of integrating K Street into their political and policy operations. But there is hope, suggested one Democratic lobbyist.

“The proof will be in the pudding two years from now,” said the lobbyist. “Hopefully, there will be much deeper and stronger ties to K Street.”

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