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New legislative affairs chief Ueland has his work cut out for him

One staffer, no matter how talented, may not be enough to curb Trump’s mercurial tendencies, Hill veterans say

Eric Ueland, left, takes over from Shahira Knight as the White House legislative affairs director. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Eric Ueland, left, takes over from Shahira Knight as the White House legislative affairs director. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Eric Ueland begins his new job Monday as President Donald Trump’s legislative affairs director, bringing with him hopes for a more productive working relationship between the White House and Congress as Trump heads into the final year of his first term. 

During more than two decades as a top Senate Republican aide, Ueland built a reputation as an effective strategist for conservative legislative efforts, with a knack for using the Senate’s rules to achieve the majority’s goals.

The new legislative affairs chief, who replaces Shahira Knight, “has literally done it all” on Capitol Hill, as longtime Senate GOP aide Hazen Marshall put it. “Nobody’s smarter and nobody will work harder than Eric,” said Marshall, who was policy director to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before leaving Capitol Hill this year to open his own lobbying shop.

[Does Trump understand how the federal budget process works?]

Ueland spent a decade working for former GOP Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma and former Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. He left the Hill after Frist’s retirement, which coincided with Democrats retaking the Senate after the 2006 midterms. Ueland returned to the Senate in 2013 after a stint as a lobbyist to serve as staff director for Budget Committee Republicans.

“Eric knows more about Senate rules and procedure than probably anyone else in this town,” added Rich Meade, a former House Budget Committee GOP chief of staff. “Eric also knows the congressional budget process extremely well. That base of knowledge and his extensive network of contacts on Capitol Hill and off will serve him and the president well.”

However, other Hill veterans say one staffer, no matter how talented, may not be enough to curb the mercurial tendencies of Trump, who at times has shifted 180 degrees from the recommendations of top aides. 

“Eric is a clever procedural expert and analyst of strategy, but no amount of cleverness can dig this president out of the hole that he has dug himself into in his relations with Congress,” said Bill Dauster, who was deputy chief of staff for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and before that a top aide on the Senate Finance and Budget committees.

Tough talks ahead

In particular, Ueland, most recently the deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, has some work cut out for him when it comes to deliberations over raising the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 spending caps, as well as the debt limit.

Those talks, needed to avoid roughly 10 percent cuts to all agency budgets next year and a catastrophic default on U.S. financial obligations, have gotten off to a rocky start. In his fiscal 2020 budget, Trump proposed steep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, matching what would occur under the scheduled automatic cuts, known as a sequester. Meanwhile, overall defense funding would grow by 5 percent over the current year.

Top Democrats and a number of Republicans argue those figures don’t have enough votes to pass, which could lead to another shutdown or potentially default if the debt ceiling is tied into a spending caps deal. The “big four” leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill met with top Trump administration officials in late May and appeared to have constructive talks, but since then there hasn’t been much movement.

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“We were making some progress, but then they kind of backed away from it,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week. She singled out for particular attention the role of Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who made a name for himself as a hard-edged conservative during his days as a GOP House lawmaker from South Carolina. 

Mick Mulvaney was one of the leaders in shutting down the government when he was here,” Pelosi said, referring to the 16-day shutdown in October 2013, when conservative Republicans revolted against implementation of President Barack Obama’s health care law and refused to vote for spending bills.

Mulvaney and acting budget director Russell Vought, a former top aide to conservative House lawmakers and vice president at Heritage Action, have taken a hard line on how much to raise nondefense spending in budget talks with Congress. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is also participating in those negotiations, and is seen as more sympathetic to cutting a deal on spending with the Democrats, in part because he’s in charge of managing the federal government’s borrowing capacity.

However, it’s not clear how much negotiating authority, or wiggle room, Ueland will have to facilitate a compromise: Mulvaney still outranks him in the White House chain of command. 

Courting Democrats

At the same time, Ueland isn’t particularly well-known among House Democratic leaders, who are the chief obstacles to Trump’s legislative agenda. Two top Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they don’t know Ueland, for instance. 

“I am not sure [Ueland’s] time in the Senate will win any clear entrée into the House majority leadership, where the real negotiations have to take place,” said G. William Hoagland, another former top Senate GOP aide, who worked with Ueland in Frist’s office. “His real challenge will be in the House,” where Hoagland said he thinks Mulvaney and Mnuchin “will be the keys.”

Hoagland said he doubts Ueland’s “new role will improve the deteriorating Trump-Pelosi interaction.”

But even if Ueland wins the trust of Democrats, some experts say the odds of major bills moving any time soon are scant.

“Major legislation is unlikely to reach the president’s desk unless he sends a strong signal to Senate Republicans that he is prepared to support real compromises,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, now with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “The best way to send such a signal is for the White House to make serious proposals — on infrastructure, for example. Up to now, the administration has opted to sit back and let Congress take the lead, a strategy that is very unlikely to yield results.”

Trump ties

Ueland has a history with the Trump White House. He advised the Trump transition team after the election and was under consideration for both director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Legislative Affairs. Sources at the time said he was particularly interested in the legislative affairs post.

Ueland had been nominated early in the Trump administration to be undersecretary of State for management, but he did not get a confirmation vote and the nomination was withdrawn in June 2018. Testifying in support of his former top aide, Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi called Ueland “dogged on behalf of his bosses and their goals” during a 2017 confirmation hearing.

The Portland, Oregon, native then went to the Millennium Challenge Corporation as a senior strategy officer before joining the State Department as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Resources.

Ueland graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in history. He began work in Washington as an editorial intern at the conservative American Spectator Magazine before joining the staff of the Senate Republican Policy Committee in 1989.

John T. Bennett, Niels Lesniewski and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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