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The Rose Garden: White House Enlists Troops From K Street

Months after instituting tough new rules designed to limit the influence of lobbyists on the administration, the White House has a growing and thriving relationship with K Street, though not one that appears to violate promises that President Barack Obama made to curtail influence peddling.

During the campaign, Obama refused to take money from lobbyists and kept them off his campaign. And while he promised to limit their influence if elected, he never said he wouldn’t talk to them or even hire them.

Nevertheless, the clear antipathy exhibited during the campaign toward the profession drew concern on K Street about whether business operatives would

be able to make their case to the government. Some lobbyists were privately appalled that the right to “petition the government” might be curtailed.

But according to top Democratic lobbyists — none of whom agreed to be named for fear of jeopardizing their relationships with the White House — Obama aides are eagerly marshaling K Street’s talents to help pass legislation and have shed earlier trepidation about any taint in dealing with lobbyists.

“I don’t think they talk to lobbyists as much as other administrations,” said one top Democratic practitioner of the trade. “But as time has gone on, they’ve figured out it is important to talk to stakeholders.”

According to this source, some White House officials entered office figuring they could banter directly with corporations or trade associations and avoid the hired guns that the presidential candidates regularly slammed during the campaign. But Democratic lobbyists have impressed on the White House that they are reliable party members — unlike some of the businesses and trade groups that the White House must enlist to help pass its agenda — who know the stakeholders and the system in Washington, D.C.

“It’s hard to call a CEO in New York and have a conversation about what you’re trying to do,” this lobbyist said.

The Obama administration is stocked with former aides to President Bill Clinton, many of whom have close relationships with former colleagues who resisted the aphrodisiac of power in the White House and opted for the riches of K Street.

Among the lobbyists with the greatest access to the corridors of the West Wing — according to their colleagues — are several who served there under Clinton or dealt closely with the Clintonites during the 1990s.

Among these are Chuck Brain of Capitol Hill Strategies, Clinton’s last legislative affairs chief; Rich Tarplin of Tarplin Strategies, a health care specialist who was Health and Human Services’ legislative affairs director; Joel Johnson of Glover Park Group, a former staffer to ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) who was a senior Clinton aide; Chris Jennings of Jennings Policy Strategies, for years Clinton’s chief health care guru; and Steve Elmendorf of Elmendorf Strategies, the chief of staff to former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).

But K Street sources emphasized that doors in the White House are open not just to favored friends of Obama’s minions.

“My sense is they take a very practical view of their interaction with lobbyists, activists and interest groups,” another top Democratic lobbyist said. “If people can support or promote the president’s agenda, there is a very business-like working relationship.”

This source said the more welcoming welcome mat unfurled in recent months to K Street is less a function of realizing that lobbyists can do them some good than it is a matter of the president’s agenda getting ramped up and needing the type of support that lobbyists can provide.

Some sources describe a more sophisticated, less “black and white” approach by the White House — a recognition that reviled enemies can also be friends, depending on the issue.

Lobbyists for groups like the American Medical Association, drugmakers and others who might be natural enemies of the Obama administration on some issues are brought in as the president tries to assemble alliances to get his health reform agenda passed.

Meanwhile, obvious allies registered to represent environmental groups and alternative energy companies are helping drum up support for the climate change bill.

Lobbyists with health care and financial services clients believe they have particular cachet with Obama aides as these issues assume center stage.

But those looking for project funding — the type of influence peddling that Obama vowed to crush — are less successful.

“It’s different for people doing appropriations and the stimulus bill,” one veteran Democratic lobbyist said. “They’re kept more at arm’s length.”

The go-to types for K Street in the West Wing extend well beyond the office of the public liaison, which is viewed in some quarters as a place to “ping” with concerns but not always to get serious business done.

Among those in high positions seen as willing to answer the phone are White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, Senior Adviser Peter Rouse, officials in the White House legislative affairs office and White House health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle.

But few, if any, lobbyists seem to think they have a chance at actually landing jobs within the administration. After a storm of criticism over some early exceptions made by Obama to tough rules limiting the hiring of lobbyists, K Street believes Obama has barred the door.

“That’s gotten more stringent than when they started,” one source said. “A few got in under the wire, but now that’s come to an end.”

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