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Democrats, K Street Feud

Majority: Groups Forget GOP Not in Charge

After 18 months in the majority and a series of unsuccessful outreach efforts to the business community, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has lost patience with Republican dominance on K Street and started a systematic campaign to force a dramatic realignment backed with threats of a hostile environment on Capitol Hill.

Several well-placed Democrats said Reid is looking at the looming battle over a package of tax extenders that would favor many business and manufacturing interests as a key test of K Street’s willingness to change its ways. According to these sources, the Democratic leader expects companies and trade associations with an interest in the bill to make a concerted push for it similar to one they made for Republican initiatives during the GOP’s reign.

As a result, Democratic leadership staff convened a meeting with a number of key lobbyists Wednesday with aides from Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Reid and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). One Democrat described the meeting as a “come to Jesus moment” designed to push K Street to abandon its allegiance to the GOP and throw its weight behind the bill.

That session comes just a week after Reid took National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler to task for involving the group in the 2005 “nuclear” option fight over Democratic filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominations. The confrontation came during a closed-door meeting with Reid and top members of NAM, and those close to the Majority Leader said his decision to openly express his displeasure was designed to be the beginning of Reid’s offensive against K Street.

Although lobbying firms, trade associations and individual companies have picked up the pace of Democratic hires in recent months, Democrats on Capitol Hill and K Street said the bulk of those positions are low- and mid-level slots, and Republicans remain entrenched at the top of most prominent firms. Even with the hiring of some new Democratic faces, much of the business community has continued to take its lobbying, advertising spending and policy research cues from the GOP, which Democrats argue has significantly eroded the already weak relationship between Congress and K Street.

“I think they haven’t come to terms with what happened two Novembers ago,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), adding that while Democrats are willing to meet with Republican lobbyists, the lack of a common philosophical and policy background makes it hard to communicate and build consensus.

Menendez and others warned that businesses will find an increasingly inhospitable environment on Capitol Hill if they do not move quickly to alter not only the political composition of their lobbying shops but also proactively work with Democrats to move legislation. Without changes, many companies and industry sectors might find it “a little difficult at the end of the day for them to achieve the success they want,” Menendez said.

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