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Partying Down K Street for the Holidays

Welcome to the K Street holiday party circuit.

Over the next few days, business interests have planned fetes offering lobbyists a chance to mingle — while eating food on toothpicks — with clients, colleagues and government officials. They’ve mixed in a touch of advocacy with a little buzz to boost their business brands.

Hot tickets include the Grocery Manufacturers of America’s holiday reception, a Microsoft holiday open house, a charity reception hosted by the Nuclear Energy Institute and a shindig sponsored by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, according to event invitations and K Street sources.

In an environment where non-fundraising social interactions between K Street and Capitol Hill are increasingly few and precious, the December party scene provides a flurry of relationship-building activities.

“The present that everyone is looking for under their tree is access to Members of Congress,” the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison said. “If you have a nice conversation with someone at a holiday party and you call them in January, they’re much more likely to take your call than somebody they don’t know.”

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, agreed that such connections can make for a more effective advocate.

“In our business as lobbyists, relationships are important,” he said. “So are facts, but if we don’t get the time to talk about the facts, then we’re not going to be able to do our jobs. … If I know you’ve got two kids or your dog is sick, it helps.”

Marlowe noted that the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which placed restrictions on gifts and meals from lobbyists to lawmakers, pushed much of the social activity to the fundraising scene.

Last week, the conservative lobby group Americans for Tax Reform greeted its holiday party guests with a festive cartoon, first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice!” read the strip, which portrayed the group’s president, Grover Norquist, as Santa Claus.

It bedecked the elevator so that partygoers such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the National Rifle Association’s David Keene would be sure to see the message.

The Recording Industry Association of America hosted an event that featured Snoop Dogg, and several lobby shops such as American Defense International and Elmendorf Ryan got into the spirit of the season.

“I’m a big fan of the holidays,” Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said. “It’s a nice time to get everybody together.”

The gift bans don’t get in the way of most holiday soirees because they fall under the reception exemption, explained William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper who specializes in lobbying ethics.

“There’s more scrutiny, given the general heightened awareness,” Minor said. “As long as they keep it to modest food that’s not a meal, then they’re well within the rules.”

The big-business lobby U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual holiday party on Thursday and “as always, the Chamber abides by House and Senate ethics rules when planning events and we will continue to do so,” chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff said in an email.

However, that compliance didn’t keep nearly 100 Occupy D.C. and union members from protesting outside the group’s headquarters as guests entered the shindig.

One source who attended the chamber’s party called the demonstrators “loud and invasive of your personal space. … but not violent.” The attendee added that there was friction between the Occupy camp and the union protesters, with one Occupy person saying the union folks were “just copying” their movement.

Norquist’s party, just a few blocks away, did not draw protesters, this source added.

Even though the rallies didn’t seem to stop any parties, not everyone on K Street kept up their holiday traditions this month.

Quinn Gillespie & Associates founder Jack Quinn, whose firm’s Christmas party has often been considered a hot ticket, emailed friends and clients that this year’s reception was off.

“This year, we will forego the party and, instead, donate gifts to some of the men and women who serve our country in the armed forces,” he wrote. The firm donated to iPads for Soldiers, which provides tablet computers to troops serving overseas or recuperating after injuries.

Quinn encouraged his contacts to donate to the cause, but the other type of fundraising — the political kind — seemed to be headed for a late December respite.

Although some Members and political committees have scheduled fundraisers this week and even later this month, most are taking a break from the K Street money chase.

“It is definitely slowing down on the fundraising front,” lobbyist David Thomas of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti said. “After a long year of fundraising, having events right before the holidays is a tough sell.”

But Thomas and other K Streeters don’t expect the little respite to last long.

“As soon as they’re back in January, it’ll take off again,” he predicted.

Janie Lorber contributed to this report.

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