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.
“He’s unflappable. He’s modest. He listens. And he’s utterly without ego in any of this stuff. And those qualities maybe are more important in a job like his than this considerable intellect, his knowledge of the legislative process,” said Maher, who worked for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for 12 years before heading to the White House in 2009.
But all that enthusiasm is running into skepticism from Republicans on the Hill, who said it will take more than a meeting or two with White House officials to demonstrate a willingness to work together.
An aide to a Republican Senator whom Obama has personally reached out to on several occasions said that while Schiliro’s team has talked with the Senator’s office on occasion, it “hasn’t mattered much” since their discussions never went very far.
“Thus far, their outreach has been pretty pathetic, to be perfectly honest,” the GOP aide said. “Even if there are conversations, at the end of the day, where have they manifested themselves in any concrete way with Republicans? I can’t think of any.”
One of the president’s most glaring weaknesses is his relationship with the pair leading his Congressional opposition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). As one senior Senate Democratic aide put it recently, Obama does not know “who the hell John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are.”
And GOP lawmakers poised to become committee chairmen if Republicans take control said they also need the White House to make more of an effort if Obama expects to take on pressing issues, such as deficit reduction.
“They don’t talk to us at all,” Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last month.
Obama’s Hill team may have its work cut out for it: Republicans could win enough seats tonight to take control of the House, and possibly the Senate. But GOP aides said it will ultimately be up to Obama to set the tone for how legislative efforts proceed.
“This goes well beyond the Legislative Affairs team; it’s going to have to come from on high,” a senior Senate GOP aide said. “If they’re to be taken seriously, Obama’s going to have to stop demagoguing Republicans at every single turn and reach out an olive branch in a sincere and genuine way.”
Obama seems to be heeding that call already, using his Saturday weekly radio address to appeal for more cooperation across the aisle. At the same time, he also used the address to scold Boehner and McConnell for making comments recently about not wanting to compromise with Democrats.
“It’s the fundamental responsibility of all who hold elective office to seek out common ground,” the president said, which is “why I found the recent comments by the top two Republican in Congress so troubling. The Republican leader of the House actually said that ‘this is not the time for compromise.’ And the Republican leader of the Senate said his main goal after this election is simply to win the next one.”
Obama said that while the GOP leaders may be talking a hard line because of politics, “When the ballots are cast and the voting is done, we need to put this kind of partisanship aside — win, lose or draw.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.