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Democrats, K Street Feud

“There still has not been much of a sea change,” one Democratic lobbyist agreed, noting that Republicans continue to hold the leading spots at groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as dominating the banking, telecommunications, health care, aviation and automotive industries. For instance, one Democratic Senate aide pointed to the health care giant Aetna’s hiring this week of Steven Kelmar, a longtime Republican supporter, as their top federal relations lobbyist.

“Hard to believe there wasn’t a qualified Democrat out there for this job,” the Senate aide said.

“Sometimes old habits are hard to change,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. “Some organizations are so accustomed to being an adjunct of the Republican majority agenda, it’s hard to break those habits. To me, it’s not about how many Democrats are hired. It’s about how they weigh in on issues that are important for the country. The fact is control of the country has changed, and I hope they would start to work with us.”

Republicans are discounting the significance of K Street’s demographics, arguing that any conflicts are a result of philosophical differences between business interests and the Democratic Party. A shot of new Democratic hires on K Street won’t change those dynamics, they said.

“How many Republican trial lawyers or unions do you see?” one GOP aide asked.

One Republican lobbyist agreed while acknowledging that he has “counseled clients that they need to start talking” to Democrats on Capitol Hill. The lobbyist, however, questioned the notion that only Democratic lobbyists can represent clients before a Democratically controlled Congress, arguing that during GOP control, K Street was instrumental in wooing Senate Democrats to pass major pieces of legislation.

Democrats on K Street said they have been wondering for months why Democratic leaders on the Hill have taken so long to press major lobbying organizations and trade groups to accept the new majority. One Democratic lobbyist suggested that there will be consequences for the party if it doesn’t act. “If Democrats want to hold the majority, they don’t do it by playing Mr. Nice Guy. You don’t hold power if you don’t know how to use that power.”

Many Democrats say Congressional leaders seemed satisfied to give K Street time to change on its own, hoping they wouldn’t have to force a transition. Democrats came into power with pledges to cut the tight bond between influence peddlers and lawmakers, and as such have sought to keep their distance.

But some say the party has overcompensated for past GOP missteps and should push K Street to increase its Democratic hiring at the highest levels, increase contributions to Democratic candidates and heighten Democratic legislative outreach.

“It’s not going to happen on its own,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “I think people need to be pushed.”

According to sources close to Reid, his approach to K Street in the beginning of his tenure as Majority Leader was shaped by a desire to avoid having a scandal similar to the “K Street Project” whereby top Congressional Republicans threatened to cut off access to lawmakers and staff to pressure firms to hire Republicans.

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