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In the spring of this year, Ralph Hellmann, the top lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, could already see the future. Much of the group’s lobbying agenda — free-trade deals, a health IT bill, legislation that would permit more high-tech immigration visas — was likely going to be scuttled by the intensely partisan environment and dwindling election year calendar.

Like many companies and lobbying organizations in a similar predicament, ITI decided to focus on next year’s agenda.

Already ITI and other stakeholders in the legislative process have made policy plans and started to position themselves for what they expect to be a breakneck start to the 111th Congress, one dominated by health care, energy/environment, financial services, tax and economic stimulus matters.

To do so, Hellmann’s group embarked on several high-level, off-the-record strategy and policy briefings with Members such as Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), think-tank leaders and former government officials including ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta.

“We wanted to see how we can set ourselves up, what do we need to do differently,” Hellmann explained. At the nudging of the speakers, Hellmann said the group plans to take a yet-to-be-announced position on cap-and-trade in the energy debate, will play a role in health care reform by pushing for more information technology in the system, and will focus on tax and economic issues.

Meanwhile, Democratic health care consultant Chris Jennings of Jennings Policy Strategies is helping his clients gear up for myriad issues in that sector. One thing he knows will be on the agenda: reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expires in March. He also expects wider reforms of the health care system.

“There will be health reform regardless of who’s president,” Jennings said. “With the difference being that [Sen. Barack] Obama will have a lot more reinvestment in the health delivery system and coverage.”

Jennings does not represent pharmaceutical clients, but lobbyists who do represent the sector and those in the health insurance areas say they are bracing for changes and will play defense when it comes to potential cuts. “The pharmaceutical lobby is very nervous,” one lobbyist said.

That sector isn’t the only one readying a defensive strategy for 2009.

Jade West, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, expects to spend much of her time fending off potential tax increases and measures, especially the Employee Free Choice bill, backed by labor unions.

That bill would allow workers to vote to unionize without conducting a secret ballot. West said her group and its business allies also will oppose any efforts to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to include paid leave or to extend it to smaller companies that are not currently obligated to give employees unpaid leave.

“We are actually anticipating a relatively unfriendly environment,” West said, adding that much of the environment depends on the outcome of Congressional races. “Projections for House and Senate losses among pro-business minorities were pretty daunting a few weeks ago. Today, who knows? The polling [last] week shows Republicans gaining strength.”

In addition to FMLA and the Employee Free Choice bill, business lobbyists will be ready to play defense if Democrats win big in November. Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that if Democrats do well, he expects the trial lawyer bar to push its agenda and for some Democrats to push for a revamp of the Medicare Part D program, which provides prescription drug coverage.

But if it is determined the U.S. economy has dipped into recession, that will likely trump partisanship no matter what the margins in Congress are or who is living in the White House.

“You can bet that whoever’s president is going to spend considerable time and effort crafting an economic stimulus package,” Josten said.

Some lobbyists have plotted out which committees to work with to find potential opportunities for clients in the coming year. Todd Boulanger, a lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates, said he expects the tax-writing panels — House Ways and Means and Senate Finance — to play a larger role in an upcoming highway reauthorization bill next Congress.

“Many interested parties are anxious for the opportunity to look to the private sector for innovative financing solutions to our Nation’s infrastructure funding shortfalls,” Boulanger said in an e-mail message. “Not only would it be stimulative to the economy because of the massive influx of new capital, it is a scenario where you get all the players — unions, State [departments of transportation], banks and developers — on the same page.”

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