WASHINGTON — When President Obama needs to reach out to the political opposition, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood often gets the call to be the go-between.
"He's our ambassador beyond his portfolio," said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
When Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with GOP House members, LaHood was by his side. When a group of moderate Republicans came to the White House to talk over the stimulus package, LaHood was in the room.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates may identify himself as a Republican. But in the Cabinet of a president pledged to bipartisanship, LaHood is the only member, as he likes to point out, who was "elected as a Republican. Seven times."
The former House member from Illinois has a deep knowledge of congressional Republicans' personalities, interests and idiosyncrasies. That -- and the $48 billion the Transportation Department will dole out as part of the stimulus package -- makes it easier for him to appeal to former colleagues.
"People return your phone calls," said LaHood, chuckling during an interview in his sun-splashed top-floor office.
Although the administration has not had much success recruiting Republican support for the president's signature initiatives -- not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus package -- efforts at bipartisan outreach are still promoted heavily. And LaHood is a key player in the White House strategy.
His strongest ties are to the House, where Democrats have a solid majority, rather than the Senate, where the administration needs Republican votes to overcome filibusters. But Howard Paster, who directed former President Clinton's congressional relations, noted that GOP votes in both chambers paid important political dividends -- and could make the difference on issues that didn't break along traditional party lines.
The Obama administration may need Republican votes on trade legislation, more bailout funding or immigration reform, Paster said. LaHood also said there was an opportunity to attract some GOP support for Obama priorities such as healthcare reform, education and energy legislation.
Within days of Obama's election, Emanuel began sounding out LaHood about a Cabinet position. The two forged a close relationship when they served together in Congress, working across party lines on a few pieces of legislation and co-hosting regular bipartisan dinners for members of Congress.
They are a bit of an odd couple.
Emanuel is a combative, hyperkinetic former Clinton aide known throughout Washington by the nickname "Rahmbo." LaHood is a gentlemanly, old-school institutionalist who once unsuccessfully tried to tamp down the Capitol Hill rancor with a bipartisan weekend civility retreat.
Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer in the Israeli army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. LaHood, an Arab Catholic (Maronite), fumed publicly over what he saw as the Bush administration's indifference to Israel's 2006 bombing campaign in his ancestral Lebanon.
"He has his point of view and I have my point of view," LaHood said. "I think the idea that a member of Congress of Lebanese Maronite background can work so closely with a Democrat of the Jewish faith speaks volumes about both of us and our ability to work together."
LaHood has played ambassador before on the Hill. Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) often used him as an emissary to moderate Republicans, said Mike Stokke, who was Hastert's deputy chief of staff.
"He likes to bring people together, and he's really good at it," Stokke said. "If there's a way or a will for a dialogue, he can do it."