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Daschle Ties a Common Thread for Team Obama

Washington is abuzz about the number of former aides to President Bill Clinton who have attached themselves to President-elect Barack Obama, wondering what influence they will have as the new administration charts its course.

But a less ostentatious group, linked to a less ostentatious leader, is also surrounding the incoming chief executive.

No less than a dozen former aides and advisers to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) have played key roles for Obama or are expected to take powerful positions in the administration — or both.

Democratic sources knowledgeable about the Obama operation say the staffing represents the unseen hand of incoming White House senior adviser and Pete Rouse, Daschle’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate. Rouse, who became Obama’s Senate chief of staff after Daschle was defeated in 2004, also helped advise the campaign and is co-chairing the transition team.

But sources who know Rouse emphasized that they saw no chance that Rouse was using his former staffers and colleagues to cement a base of power that he can wield from the tiny office off the Oval Office that has served as the perch for past senior advisers. They say it is only natural that Rouse would bring in people he knows can get the job done.

“Pete has never been interested in power or had his eye on getting attention,” one former Daschle staffer said. “He’s simply always seen his job as putting together the best talent he can.”

This source noted that Rouse’s style is to let staffers “do their job” and sweep in mainly when something is broken and needs to be fixed.

Democratic lobbyist and former Clinton Legislative Affairs Director Chuck Brain said Rouse was just trying to get the best staff for what will be a challenging job. “He’s been in a foxhole with a lot of these people, and now they’re all getting in the world’s biggest foxhole,” he said “You want people you can trust and do business with.”

Nevertheless, the presence of so many trusted advisers within the administration will at a minimum help enhance Rouse’s effectiveness and influence, other sources said.

And should Daschle himself enter the administration — there remains speculation he may become Health and Human Services secretary or take some other post — he will clearly have a network of former advisers leading to the door of the Oval Office.

Sources close to the transition say the notion of a White House power struggle makes little sense. They note the Obama campaign operation, which ran at a barely audible hum, is likely to continue operating the same way once it takes the reins of power.

Furthermore, the two people at the top of the White House food chain — Rouse and the incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) — are close political allies who built a relationship that extended from Emanuel’s days as a Clinton White House adviser to the years of Emanuel’s rapid ascent in the House.

“They’ve been in constant contact,” one Democratic source said.

But power has a way of unraveling White House teams. Few could have imagined that George Stephanopoulos, who preceded Emanuel as a senior adviser, would become persona non grata in the Clinton White House, or that Bush über-flack Scott McClellan would join the chorus of Bush critics.

Among the key incoming White House aides with Daschle bona fides is Phil Schiliro, who will run Obama’s White House legislative affairs shop. Schiliro, though better known for his long years working for House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), served as a top Daschle aide in 2004.

In addition, Ron Klain, who will be chief of staff to Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, worked for Daschle in the mid-1990s.

Other probable administration big rollers from the Daschle orbit include Dan Pfeiffer, who is communications director for the Obama transition team. He was deputy campaign manager and a spokesman for Daschle’s failed 2004 re-election bid.

Pfeiffer’s wife, Sarah Feinberg, is Emanuel’s current communication director and is widely expected to take a role with the administration. She took questions from reporters after a press conference in Washington, D.C., last week by Obama transition chief John Podesta. Feinberg served as press secretary for Daschle from 2003 to 2004.

Another staffer who worked for Daschle during the years before he left the Senate is Jennifer Duck, who is being mentioned as a possible player on Obama’s House legislative affairs team.

Podesta, who has said he will not join the administration but who is playing a critical role in forming it, is a former Clinton chief of staff who served as counselor to Daschle from 1995 to 1996.

At least two former Daschle aides are playing leading roles in overseeing Obama transition-ordered reviews of the agencies — roles that may well lead to key posts in the agencies. Bart Chilton, commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is leading an examination of the Agriculture Department. He was a senior adviser to Daschle from 2001 to 2005.

Bill Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, is helping perform the transition’s agency review for HHS. He was chief counsel and policy director for Daschle from 1998 to 2000.

Several other former members of the Daschle orbit played major roles in the Obama campaign, but their future in the administration are less clear. Steve Hildebrand was a longtime South Dakota-based Daschle political adviser who managed Daschle’s 2004 campaign and then served as Obama’s deputy campaign manager.

Anita Dunn, a political consultant to Daschle for many years, was a senior strategist on the Obama campaign. And her husband, Robert Bauer, has been a longtime Daschle attorney. He headed up the Obama campaign’s legal team.

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