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Street Talk: K Street Hiring Chill Leaves Members Cold

It’s not as if they’re setting up outside of Union Station with “Will Work for Food” signs, but the cadre of ex-members from the 112th Congress is finding a lukewarm hiring market downtown.

“It has been more challenging this year than in any year I can remember, and I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” said Ivan Adler, a lobbyist headhunter with The McCormick Group.

K Street shops, many in revenue decline for the past couple of years, can no longer afford the luxury of a high-priced former member. Senators usually don’t entertain offers worth less than $1 million, and House members’ threshold is typically about $700,000. And it’s an investment with no guaranteed payoff. Ever.

Still, it’s a bet that some firms are willing to wager, especially when it comes to top-tier, big-name talent off the Hill. And in recent weeks, the revolving door has deposited former Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts plus former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson into plum positions. Ditto for former Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former California Democratic Rep. Howard L. Berman and a select few of their colleagues who have set up shop in law firms or other outfits.

But that’s a small percentage of the more than 100 lawmakers who found themselves, voluntarily or not, out of work in early January. Many of them seem missing in action — think former Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, who hasn’t tweeted since Nov. 6.

Among the hot prospects in line for corporate jobs, former independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is still considering his options, sources said. Lieberman last week joined Kyl in an American Enterprise Institute project, but that is not likely to be his only gig.

Julian Ha, another K Street headhunter with the search firm Heidrick & Struggles, was hired by Visa Inc. to find the company a new top lobbyist in Washington. Ha doesn’t represent job-seekers, but he said he’s heard from a lot of former members — no, he won’t name names — who have expressed an interest in the job.

“I’ll be honest,” Ha said, keeping expectations in check, “the type of person [Visa] wants for that job is somebody who’s run a D.C. office.”

He said both Republican and Democratic members just off the Hill have found a tough job environment. Law and lobbying firms, he said, “want somebody who’s going to cover their costs and then some.”

Money matters, but timing is critical, too. The influx of so many former members downtown doesn’t coincide with commensurate vacancies. So an announcement Friday that Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of BSA The Software Alliance, was stepping down next month had K Street buzzing. (Holleyman is starting his own cloud-computing consulting firm Cloud4Growth, and BSA is looking for a new chief.)

In an interview at his new firm Covington & Burling, Kyl, who practiced law and did a little lobbying before Congress, seemed at ease in his private sector digs. He declined to discuss his arrangement with the firm and whether he’ll have to bill his hours, but he said he views the opportunity as “a great capstone to my career.”

Like all former senators, he is prohibited from lobbying for two years (it’s one year for House members). And he said he doesn’t expect to lobby after those 24 months expire, either. But following a path well worn by other former government officials, Kyl will advise clients about the players on Capitol Hill, the machinations of deal-making and how best to persuade.

Kyl said he had “a lot of opportunities” post-Congress and that he picked Covington because of its team approach, its international reach and mix of smart folks, including former top Senate aide Marty Gold, among others.

Some firms, he observed, were not in the market for a former senator. “Many very good firms were already staffed in a way they didn’t feel they had the need,” he said.

Covington, though, wants to expand, especially globally, he said.

The firm also brought on former House Foreign Affairs Chairman Berman, who lost his seat in a grueling incumbent-vs.-incumbent match against Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.

Berman said he met with “some number of other firms and other kinds of entities” that reached out to him, but his instincts told him Covington was the best fit. He can continue to work on international affairs and intellectual property matters, his specialties in Congress, from a different perspective.

“My own enthusiasm for this is not only to work in the areas that I spent most of my time on in Congress but also new areas that come up,” he said.

Some former members can bring an immediate bounce to a lobbying outfit.

When Nixon Peabody announced last week that it had nabbed Brown, clients got in touch to find out when they could meet the former senator, said managing partner Andrew Glincher. Other lawyers are often eager for the new hires to join them on client lunches or, even better, pitches for potential business.

“Clients still think there’s something sexy about talking to a former senator,” the McCormick Group’s Adler said.

Glincher indicated his firm, whose lobby practice is led by former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-N.Y., might not be finished with its acquisitions. “I think you’ll see more activity in the coming weeks,” he hinted.

But not every ex-lawmaker may feel compelled to find an employer.

“I always say, all you need is one client to pay the bills, and two clients to save a buck or two,” said former Republican Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, who’s been out of office for 14 years and built his own Livingston Group.

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