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Democrats, K Street Feud

Reid instead opted to dispatch colleagues such as Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) as emissaries to the business community. The two lawmakers were natural choices, aides said, since Delaware is home to much of the country’s financial industry, and Stabenow has ties to the heavy-manufacturing interests that dominate Michigan’s economy. But those efforts were largely unsuccessful.

Democrats acknowledge the K Street problems have been easy to ignore because of the fundraising muscle exercised by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has tapped K Street donors of all political persuasions. Plus, in a presidential election cycle, the money tends to flow more freely — a circumstance most Democrats anticipate will change quickly during the 2010 midterms, a period likely to prove daunting for the party in charge.

Stabenow, chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, said in her role she has been working with the leadership to encourage business and manufacturing trade groups to embrace the new majorities in Congress. She said the transition is coming, but it’s been more sluggish than she anticipated when the party came to power in early 2007.

“You are starting to see it in who they are hiring, and there’s now a willingness to talk to us, meet with us, work with us,” she said, but she was quick to add that the shift has come “slowly, but slowly.”

Carper agreed, saying he has seen signs that the business community is coming to terms with Democratic control. “Market forces, if you will, have led the folks on K Street to hire some folks with longstanding relationships” with Democrats, though he acknowledged that many major trade associations remain the “last bastions of denial.”

Stabenow accused many of the prominent lobbying organizations — particularly those in the manufacturing sector — of failing to shift from years of cozying up to the Bush administration. “What we’ve seen is with too many trade associations they have just been promoting the Bush agenda as opposed to the American people’s agenda,” Stabenow said. “That’s a problem.”

One issue that Democrats have repeatedly highlighted is the tax-extenders package. According to Democrats, staff from the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee have attempted to work with lobbyists on the bill, which includes tax breaks for research and development coveted by the manufacturing sector. But businesses have resisted requests to aggressively push the bill or help pick off the handful of Republicans and Democrats needed to pass it.

“The feeling is that they’d be pushing Democrats if they were in the minority,” one Democratic lobbyist familiar with the situation said, adding that Democratic leaders had hoped the trade associations “would shape up and start exerting some of their muscle ... and you’re just not seeing much of that.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said regardless of what Democratic leaders do to try to prompt an awakening from the lobbying world, the turnaround will happen. He said backers of those groups and associations will eventually grow frustrated if their priorities fall on deaf ears in Congress.

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