Legislative Affairs Team Gets to Work

Full Plate Awaits Hill Vets Staffing Office

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:46pm

President Barack Obama may have only taken the reins of government Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean the members of his White House legislative affairs team have been resting on their laurels.

With Obama facing an onslaught of critical issues from the economic crisis to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his contingent of lobbyists has already fanned out on Capitol Hill using its political capital to woo lawmakers.

Their main focus: trying to find a middle ground on the economic stimulus package that the president is urging bipartisan support for.

So far, their approach with Congress has been much more cooperative than that of the Bush administration’s team, according to veteran Capitol Hill lobbyists.

“What you are seeing is an initial approach where the White House is going to try to work very closely with Congress and listen to Congress and have the Congress involved in the process,” said H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, head of Van Scoyoc Associates Inc. “The risk with that is the more you try to cooperate with Congress the more you risk that Congress feels like they can push back and push back very hard.”

That could lead to tough times down the road for Obama and his lobbying team.

“They have to constantly remind themselves they represent the executive branch,” said Jack Howard, a one-time deputy assistant to former President George W. Bush who is now at Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.

Unlike past administrations that have tapped longtime Washington, D.C., influence peddlers to fill the ranks of the White House legislative affairs office, Obama named a team of 14 Capitol Hill veterans, including Phil Schiliro, a former chief of staff to then-House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Although he’s well-respected on the Hill, many K Streeters were concerned Schiliro would take a more ideological bent to the job instead of playing the role of deal-maker. But as Schiliro has moved to tap deputies known for their pragmatic approach, some of that worry has been put to rest.

Schiliro brought on Shawn Maher, staff director and general counsel to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, as deputy director for the Senate and Dan Turton, the House Rules Committee chief of staff, as deputy director for the House.

Beyond the trio of senior staff, Obama named several Congressional aides to fill out the large legislative affairs team. Lisa Konwinski, general counsel to Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), will be deputy director of legislative affairs.

Jay Heimbach, chief of staff to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio); Christopher Kang, floor director for Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.); and Sean Kennedy, chief of staff for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), will work on the Senate side.

Jim Oleske, former counsel to then- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and Louisa Terrell, former counsel to now-Vice President Joseph Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are expected to round out the Senate team.

Meanwhile, Jim Papa, director of member services for former House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is now the White House chief of staff; Alejandro Pérez, floor director for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Jonathan Samuels, acting floor director for House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), will focus on the House.

Shelly O’Neill Stoneman, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), and Denise Wilson, another former aide to Waxman on the Government Reform Committee, are also expected to be on the House team.

Downtown is especially comfortable with Turton, a former senior floor assistant to then-House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) who returned to Capitol Hill in 2006 after spending three years as a lobbyist at Timmons & Co. Inc.

Not only does Turton know Members of the House, but his background as floor assistant means that most Members also know and respect Turton, according to a former Democratic leadership staffer.

While much of the rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail about lobbyists focused on their pervasive influence and the need to clean up Washington, not everyone in Obama’s legislative affairs team has been totally removed from the influence-peddling game.

Beyond Turton, Terrell and Wilson both have a K Street background. Terrell took a leave of absence from her position as a senior director in Yahoo’s government affairs division to become part of the transition team. Wilson worked as a manager of government relations for Motorola.

Those downtown ties could come in handy as the lobbying team looks to corral votes on the stimulus package.

The Obama administration’s openness is building goodwill among House and Senate Democrats who have felt marginalized under the Bush regime, according to former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), who is now with Cassidy & Associates.

“They are open to ideas and are willing to be flexible,” Russo said. Leadership “feels very comfortable, but there is a lot of pressure to get it done quickly.”