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Kyl Tries New Version of K St. Outreach

Drawing a contrast with its politically driven and often controversial predecessor, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) last week rolled out his own brand of K Street outreach.

The Friday huddle, several months in the making, gathered about 20 top Republican lobbyists to talk policy with Kyl and Senate leadership staff. Participants said the discussion focused on the substance of the Senate agenda — the budget and taxes, debate over the Iraq War, and immigration proposals — rather than how to raise more political cash for the party or place loyalist staffers in top jobs downtown.

The meeting marks a sharp break from those organized by former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Kyl’s forerunner at the helm of the Conference.

Santorum’s meeting was a key element of the GOP’s “K Street Project,” which sought to firm up the party’s grip on power by converting the lobbying industry into a powerbase. The gatherings were suspended early last year, but Santorum’s involvement became a campaign issue that helped sink his re-election bid.

“We’re going to run this differently, and in a way that will be very effective at promoting solutions to serious policy problems,” Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn said. “The focus will be on generating awareness and support for the measures we believe Americans are concerned about.”

Kyl drove the point home when he opened the first meeting of the retooled effort last week, according to participants. After praising the “incredible” job Santorum did at the helm of the Senate GOP’s message operation, he said the new meetings should not be misunderstood as an attempt to resurrect the Pennsylvania Republican’s shuttered program, a lobbyist in attendance said. “Kyl realizes his position is one of traditional outreach to the organized business community, and he doesn’t want to see that connection end,” the lobbyist said.

Though aides have been plotting the sessions since the beginning of this Congress, they said it took several months of learning to operate in the minority before they were ready to kick them off. “We had to wait and see what the Democrats were planning to do,” a GOP leadership aide said. “And now that we’ve gotten a glimpse of what they have in mind for taxes and regulation, it gives us a better feel for what we need to focus on.”

Staffing issues contributed to the delay: Stephen Replogle, who will be focusing on business community outreach for the Conference and organizing the meetings, started only last week.

But the break also gave Senate Republicans the chance to put some distance between the new sessions and their precursors, said lobbyists in attendance.

Aides said they have not yet determined how often they will conduct the meetings — Santorum’s group met every two weeks — or even when the next one will occur.

While in control of the Senate, Republicans split outreach sessions between contract lobbyists, who met with Santorum, and trade association lobbyists, who met with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas).

Friday’s session pulled together a select group of K Street’s heaviest hitters from both worlds. Among those seated around the square table in the Senate’s Mansfield Room, where Senate Republicans hold their weekly policy luncheons, were Jade West, from the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, Bruce Josten, from the U.S Chamber of Commerce, and Ralph Hellmann, from the Information Technology Industry Council. They were co-mingled with lobbyists-for-hire: David Hobbs, who has his own firm; Lanny Griffith, of Barbour Griffith & Rogers; Susan Hirschmann, of Williams & Jensen; David Hoppe, of Quinn Gillespie & Associates; Jack Howard, of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates; and former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Staffers from a number of leadership offices also attended, including Conference Chief of Staff Ron Bonjean and Kyl tax counsel Lisa Wolski.

“There were a couple hundred years of experience at the highest levels of the White House and key committees in that room,” one attendee said.

Most of the talk centered on a budget deal House and Senate negotiators are expected to reach this week, and how lawmakers will address the alternative minimum tax gap. Business lobbyists are worried Democrats will phase out tax cuts and end breaks to pay for new spending.

“It was an opportunity for the Conference to hear what their concerns are, and also to share what Republicans are doing on these issues,” a GOP aide said.

Lobbyists said they also discussed Congressional Democrats’ showdown with the White House over the Iraq War, a debate that has consumed so much energy on the Hill that other items more relevant to the business agenda have been pushed aside.

Meanwhile, House Republicans have not held any similar meetings and have none planned, an aide said. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) late last month tapped Ashley Hoy to honcho outreach to lobbyists. She replaced a staffer who had handled the work temporarily.

Congressional Democrats have been meeting every other Monday with their K Street allies since the beginning of the year. Those get-togethers, organized by the centrist think tank Third Way, bring together Democratic leadership aides from both chambers and as many as 80 lobbyists.

Like the GOPers, Democratic staffers suspended politically driven meetings with lobbyists last year after they prompted charges that Democrats were being hypocritical on ethics reform. And like the Republicans, Democrats have avoided lobbying and fundraising pitches in their reconstituted meetings, instead focusing on general policy matters.

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