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Obama and Congress in sync

An economic stimulus bill could be ready for signing by Jan. 20.

November 27, 2008|Janet Hook and Christi Parsons | Hook and Parsons are writers in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — As chairman of his party's congressional campaign committee, Rahm Emanuel helped scores of current House Democrats win their seats. When Tom Daschle was the Senate Democratic leader, he funneled more than $1 million to a new generation of lawmakers seeking office.

Now, as key members of Barack Obama's incoming administration, Emanuel and Daschle are using their clout to help build sturdy bridges between the White House and Congress, coordinating their plans well before Inauguration Day.

That effort could produce a remarkable result: Democrats may try to pass an economic stimulus bill before Obama takes office Jan. 20, and have it on his desk to sign immediately. Typically, a new Congress spins its wheels for weeks while awaiting the arrival of a new president after convening in early January.

"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 of the president-elect are meeting with every congressional committee chair. Emanuel, who will be Obama's chief of staff, has been dispatched to the Capitol. And Obama, who is running the transition from his home base in Chicago, has been working the phones.

When Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) won a bitter contest last week to become the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Obama called his cellphone to congratulate him. Almost daily, top Obama aides contact House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, where Emanuel and others on the president-elect's team have long-standing relationships with her chief of staff, John Lawrence.

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

The incoming administration also has made an effort to reach across the aisle. Emanuel met with House and Senate Republican leaders last week. Obama has consulted with Republican lawmakers about his economic plans.

Members of Congress and their staffs say that the Obama team has been engaged in fact-gathering on the Hill as much as seeking support for its own agenda. That stands in marked contrast to the approach of Obama's Democratic predecessors.

Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter identified themselves as Washington outsiders, coming to the capital from Southern statehouses and having few connections to the Washington establishment. Their top White House appointees came from their home states of Arkansas and Georgia.

Early on, Carter drew congressional ire for attacking lawmakers' beloved local projects, which he called wasteful pork-barrel spending. An aide at the time warned Carter that lawmakers considered him "naive or selfish or stubborn, or all three," according to a biography of then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. by John Farrell.

And even though Democrats dominated both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue when Clinton took office, relations were so sour that the House did not give so much as a subcommittee vote to his signature healthcare initiative. Clinton developed the ambitious plan in a closed-door process that left senior lawmakers feeling excluded and disrespected.

His 1993 budget passed by the narrowest of margins. Two years into the Clinton administration, his party lost control of Congress.

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

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

In addition, Obama this week named Peter R. Orszag, head of the Congressional Budget Office, to be White House budget director. And he tapped Rob Nabors, the top staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, as deputy budget director.

"It really is quite a collection," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who was a White House aide to President Eisenhower. "It doesn't look like past teams, in part because there hasn't been a president out of Congress in a long time."

Hess said one risk of having so many advisors steeped in Capitol Hill culture was that they might be too aware of political potholes ahead -- which could dampen ambitions.

"Typically, people on the Hill know all the ways that nothing can happen," Hess said. "They tend to advise the president, 'You can't get away with that.' "




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