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Lobbyists Vie for Mentions in State of the Union

Washington lobbyists listen to the State of the Union address the way they read Beltway insider books. Like flipping straight to the index to find their names, they hang on the president’s remarks waiting for any mention of their clients’ causes.

But while most are hoping for a boost from the year’s most anticipated political address, others don’t want to be anywhere near it.

“I have a client that I’ve advised not to reach out to the White House,” one lobbyist said, “because it could hurt their chances for support from Republicans.”

Another K Street source said a mention in the speech can be a mixed bag depending on the issue. “If it were a concession like medical liability reform was, I don’t think it hurts,” the second lobbyist said. “If it’s more stimulus for green energy companies like Solyndra, it probably doesn’t help [with Republicans].”

Most activists and advocates have been contacting administration officials for weeks, suggesting a line or two in the Feb. 12 address. They’re aware that their opponents are doing the same.

“Everybody hangs on every word the president says in the State of the Union, looking for their word, their sentence, their phrase, with fingers crossed,” said James Pinkerton, who co-chairs the RATE Coalition, which lobbies for a lower corporate tax rate.

President Barack Obama this week has filled his schedule with meetings with progressive activists, corporate CEOs and trade association heads. The meetings are not about the State of the Union but about broader policy issues, many of which are likely to be mentioned in the speech. On Thursday, for example, Obama has scheduled a 10 a.m. session with top association executives such as former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who heads the Business Roundtable.

Eliseo Medina, an official with the Service Employees International Union and an advocate of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, participated in a Tuesday session at the White House on that issue. Medina said Obama “is fully committed to making the case to the American people.”

“None of us has rose-colored glasses on; we know it’s going to be difficult,” Medina said. “The president will be really helpful by putting a human face on this.”

Robert Raben, who runs The Raben Group, expects that at least two of his clients’ causes — gun safety and immigration — will merit prominent mentions in the speech. The Raben Group represents Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the National Immigration Forum.

He said there’s an effort under way to get individuals involved in the gun violence debate to be represented at the speech in the House of Representatives chamber. Raben also noted that most outside interests send their views to the Office of Public Engagement.

“The president is showing he is clearly committed to keeping up interest and passion among the American people, so the State of the Union is just the highest-profile platform he will have,” Raben said.

Jack Gerard, who runs the American Petroleum Institute, said his organization has pressed the administration to approve new production for domestic oil and gas that he said would create millions of U.S. jobs as well as billions of dollars in tax revenue. On the flip side, the API opposes tax increases on the industry and noted a recent report showing such moves could cost the Treasury revenue in the long run.

“The president has the opportunity with the bully pulpit of the State of the Union and elsewhere to really make America the world’s energy superpower,” Gerard said. “We have ongoing outreach to multiple places [in the administration] to educate and inform about this game-changing opportunity. We want to make sure the president chooses the right path.”

Gerard called next week’s speech before Congress “one more stop on the road” in his industry’s outreach to the administration but “an important stop” because it can cast the president’s vision for the future.

“We’re somewhat optimistic that they’re better understanding the key role oil and natural gas plays,” Gerard said, noting that he doesn’t expect references to oil and gas as “yesterday’s energy” as Obama called it in a previous State of the Union.

But outside influences clash.

On the other side of the API is the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC’s Bob Deans said his organization has been lobbying the administration to build on Obama’s call to prioritize climate issues in his inaugural address last month.

“A lot of people compete for space in the State of the Union, and it’s weeks, months in the works,” Deans said. “Every single priority lobbies hard for inclusion. We understand space is tight, time is limited and time is valuable.”

International trade is another controversial topic. It pits the business community against other stakeholders, including progressive groups and unions.

Christopher Wenk, trade lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said trade pacts offer an opportunity for agreement between Congress and the administration. “People put huge stock in the priorities set in the State of the Union,” Wenk said.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said she doesn’t expect the president to switch course on trade — much to her chagrin. Still, she has forwarded data to the administration and Congress showing some pacts have resulted in fewer U.S. exports, not more.

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