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Lobbyists Say Panel Off to a Smooth Start

Even if health care reform legislation gets passed this year, lobbyists say it may have surprisingly little to do with Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). That’s because Harkin assumed the panel’s top slot after much of the reform package had already been crafted.

Negotiations now are largely occurring between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded the HELP Committee’s reform measure in the absence of Harkin’s predecessor, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Harkin, however, has filled in the gaps after taking the helm of the HELP panel after Kennedy’s death. And so far, from the perspective of K Street health care consultants, Harkin’s tenure has gotten off to a smooth start.

He attends press conferences where he and other Members give updates on the health care negotiations, but he hasn’t inserted himself as aggressively as some had suggested he would upon taking the gavel.

Although he remains largely untested as HELP chairman, Harkin and lobbyists who work the panel are already gearing up for next year when the committee will work to corral consensus on a massive Food and Drug Administration bill.

Harkin, who previously was chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. During the last farm bill in 2006, for example, Senate Democratic leadership called on Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to help broker the final deal after negotiations had reached a stalemate.

So far on the HELP panel, Harkin has shown a deft hand at working with Republicans to form consensus on smaller pieces of legislation. In particular, he brought together Senators of both parties to get a bipartisan food safety bill completed.

“He was able to work well with Republicans as well as Democrats to get that bill done quickly and with broad, bipartisan support in the committee,” said Peter Reinecke, a former Harkin chief of staff who is now a lobbyist at Reinecke Strategic Solutions.

Lobbyists said they expect Harkin to use his good working relationship with Republicans such as HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.). Harkin also has a strong working relationship with Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), HELP’s No. 2 Republican.

Lobbyists pushing for disease prevention and wellness programs are expected to receive a boost under Harkin, according to K Streeters. Harkin has long promoted wellness legislation. Given his background as an Iowa farmer, Harkin also has a keen interest in rural health initiatives.

Harkin also is in favor of embryonic stem-cell research and is probably best known for the work he has done to help people with disabilities. He was a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Should Democrats fail to get a health care reform package passed this year, Harkin will also face several unresolved issues.

While he has yet to take on a massive legislative push from beginning to end, K Streeters say Harkin appears to be making smart staffing decisions to find compromise on the health panel. Lobbyists say that many of the staffers they got to know under Kennedy’s tenure have remained.

“Hiring some of the former Kennedy and Dodd staff is a sign that Harkin has an appreciation for the value of having experienced people on the team,” said Andy Rosenberg, a lobbyist with Thorn Run Partners.

Harkin called on former Chief of Staff Daniel Smith to be the committee’s staff director. For the past several years, Smith served as president of the American Cancer Society’s lobbying arm, the Cancer Action Network.

Harkin also has a retinue of staffers-turned-lobbyists that he counts among his close confidants. Robert Waters of Drinker Biddle & Reath and Reinecke are among his circle of former senior aides. Mary Langowski of Alston & Bird and Adam Gluck of Biogen Idec are also close to Harkin.

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