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When President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, he padded his Cabinet with deft Hill aides who went on to help usher through some of the most sweeping legislative reforms in decades.
But two years in, Obama’s lobbying team has a problem: Republicans, who say they have next to no relationship with the White House at a time when they are poised to hold significantly more sway — and possibly take control — in the 112th Congress.
“Sadly, the relationship has been virtually nonexistent since the earliest days of the Obama administration,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Cantor stands to become Majority Leader if Republicans win control of the House today.
A senior House Republican aide concurred: “Our legislative folks know a few of theirs from their previous jobs on the Hill but have virtually no working relationship.”
“I’ve never heard of Legislative Affairs really reaching out to us,” a senior Senate GOP aide added.
After today — if predictions hold — Obama will no longer enjoy a strong Democratic majority able to push through his priorities. The president is going to need to work with Republicans more than ever, and up until now they have played virtually no role in shaping his agenda.
The fate of the White House’s ties to Hill Republicans will be largely dictated by one person: Phil Schiliro, the head of the White House’s Legislative Affairs shop.
The former chief of staff to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been driving Obama’s Congressional agenda from day one.
His top deputies describe him as “a legislative strategic genius” and “the fulcrum” that helped to translate Obama’s top priorities — namely, health care reform — into a practical plan of action for lawmakers. And while Schiliro’s team of 20 staffers will need to do some major recalibrating given the expected boost in GOP seats in today’s elections, they say their collective Hill experience — 184 years strong — will allow them to make headway with the other party, even in a Congress hurtling toward partisan gridlock.
“Between others in our shop and me, most of our time on the Hill has been spent either during a Republican-controlled Congress, or one chamber or the other has been under Republican control, or where the executive branch has been [Republican] … We’ve developed relationships with Republicans over a period of many years,” said Shawn Maher, the White House liaison to the Senate.
Maher wouldn’t speculate about today’s results.
Dan Turton, who works under Schiliro as the chief House liaison, said he has largely served as a “customer service resource” for Members over the past two years; his relationships have developed as a result of helping lawmakers with their individual bills or constituent problems. “It’s a two-party town and it always will be,” he said.
Turton is a 15-year veteran of the Hill, most recently working for Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) until 2009.
Schiliro declined to be interviewed for this story. But Turton and Maher said it may ultimately be Schiliro’s personality — and not his 27-year Congressional tenure — that fosters bipartisan success next year.