Ties to Hill bridge Obama to Democrats in Congress

December 01, 2008|By Janet Hook and Christi Parsons | Janet Hook and Christi Parsons,Tribune Washington Bureau

As a congressman and leader of a party campaign committee, Rahm Emanuel helped 54 Democrats win the House seats they hold today.

When Tom Daschle was the Senate Democratic leader, he contributed more than $1.5 million to help a new generation of lawmakers win office.

Now, Emanuel and Daschle are key members of Barack Obama's incoming administration, and emblems of a top priority of the new White House team: They are trying to build sturdy bridges between the new White House and Democrats in Congress, coordinating their plans well before Inauguration Day.

When lawmakers hear from the two prominent members of Obama's team, they will know that they are talking to people who not only have the president's ear, but who played important roles in putting many of them in Congress.

The effort at teamwork is designed to avoid the mistakes of past Democratic administrations, which were handicapped by tensions with Congress even when Democrats held majorities there. The last time Democrats dominated both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, under President Clinton, relations were so sour that the House did not give so much as a subcommittee vote to his signature health care initiative.

As Obama looks toward Inauguration Day, coordination with Congress could produce a remarkable result: Democrats may try to pass an economic stimulus bill even before Obama takes office Jan. 20, and have it on his desk to sign immediately. Typically, a new Congress spins its wheels for weeks after its early-January swearing-in, awaiting the arrival of a new president.

"We don't intend to stumble into the next administration," Obama said this week. "We are going to hit the ground running. We're going to have clear plans of action."

To that end, emissaries from the president-elect are meeting with every committee chair on Capitol Hill. Emanuel, who will be Obama's chief of staff, has already been dispatched to the Capitol. Obama himself has been making phone calls to members of Congress.

The day last week that Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, won a bitter contest to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Obama called his cell phone to congratulate him. Almost every day, top Obama aides contact House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, where Emanuel and others on Obama's team have longstanding relationships with her chief of staff, John Lawrence.

"We can speak in political shorthand," said Lawrence. "Conversations can be short and direct. We have a no [deception] zone in the relationship."

The president-elect has also made an effort to reach across the aisle. Emanuel met with House and Senate Republican leaders last week. Obama consulted with Republican lawmakers about his economic plans. Earlier this year, while wandering on the House floor, Obama embraced retiring Illinois Republican Ray LaHood, who said he did not know what he would do next. "Maybe you can work with me," Obama said.

Obama, who served barely four years in the Senate himself, is bringing substantial Capitol Hill experience to the White House, including Emanuel and Pete Rouse, a former aide to both Daschle and Obama, who will be a senior adviser to the new president.

To serve as congressional liaison, Obama has appointed Phil Schiliro, a former aide to Waxman and to Daschle. Daschle, who is expected to be named Health and Human Services secretary, will likely play a large role in moving health legislation through Congress.

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