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A Quiet Departure for Obama’s Top Lobbyist

The White House/Getty Images

Even on his way out the door, White House Legislative Affairs Director Phil Schiliro still won’t take credit for his role in making the 111th Congress one of the most productive in decades.

Schiliro, the quiet force behind President Barack Obama’s strategy for working with Capitol Hill, will point to just about everyone else on his team of 20 as the reason for the president’s successful legislative run over the past two years.

But the former chief of staff to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) concedes he did one thing right as he oversaw negotiations between the White House and Congressional leaders on dozens of major initiatives, the least of which included health care reform, a financial regulatory overhaul and an economic stimulus.

“I didn’t mess it up,” he said.

Lost in this week’s news about Egypt and Obama’s budget recommendation was the fact that Schiliro stepped down from his post as the top White House liaison.

Not that he’ll be going far: He’s moving to another office 20 feet away, where next week he’ll begin his less defined job as a senior adviser to Obama. Schiliro said he was ready for a change after his “pretty intense job” of running the legislative affairs shop, though he said he wasn’t leaving because of burnout.

“It was a great two years. Most people who worked in Congressional affairs who have the job I had do it for two years or a little bit less,” he said. “It seemed like a good time to make a change.”

Schiliro can point to victories during his time in the legislative affairs shop — the biggest he said was averting an economic collapse in early 2009 — but he will clarify that none is his alone. They are “the president’s successes” and “the team’s successes,” he said.

And Schiliro has consistently steered clear of the press throughout his White House run because, he said, he didn’t want any focus on himself while his team was working to get things done.

“Interviews don’t advance what the president’s agenda is,” he said.

But his value at the White House is clear: When Schiliro initially made it known that he planned to vacate his post at the end of the last Congress, White House Chief of Staff William Daley stepped in and persuaded him to stay on longer amid a major staff restructuring. Daley was among the changes; he recently replaced Rahm Emanuel.

“Phil has made extraordinary contributions to the president’s success, and I’ve asked him to slow his departure in order to lend his wise counsel and guidance in the transition period ahead,” Daley wrote in an e-mail to White House staff last month.

And Schiliro’s top deputies have described him as “a legislative strategic genius” and “the fulcrum” that helped translate Obama’s top priorities into a practical plan of action for Members.

Rob Nabors, who took over as legislative affairs director this week, had nothing but praise for Schiliro and the way he ran the legislative affairs operation.

“I am proud and slightly overwhelmed whenever anyone even implies that I could be the ‘new Phil,’” he said.

Nabors, who previously served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and was a senior adviser to Emanuel, said he has been learning from Schiliro over the years that they have worked together. Nabors also served as the staff director on the House Appropriations Committee when Schiliro worked for Waxman.

Schiliro’s success as the legislative affairs director lies in him being “very good about giving the staff the room to run and do their job,” Nabors said. He is “incredibly thoughtful and strategic,” but he “doesn’t opine on everything. Just the important things,” Nabors said.

Nabors said he is fortunate to already know the legislative affairs team “pretty well” because Schiliro made a point to bring him into meetings over the past two years. And it doesn’t hurt that Nabors considers Schiliro one of his “closest friends.”

Schiliro didn’t have much advice for Nabors but signaled that his experience on Capitol Hill will prove essential for managing the twists and turns of an unpredictable legislative process.

“Generally, things take longer than you think they will,” he said, noting the only real surprise that he encountered on the job was that “we were able to keep to schedule pretty regularly.”

Despite the administration being criticized for falling behind on health care reform, Schiliro said many were surprised it passed by March 2010.

“So even though people had the sense we were running behind, from a Congressional standpoint, that was lightning quick,” he said.

It remains to be seen how long Schiliro will stay at the White House; he’s coming up on 30 years of public service, a tenure that makes him very attractive to the private sector. But he maintains that he hasn’t “really thought about that” and, for now, is focused on sorting out what he will do in his role as a senior adviser to Obama.

“The president has some things he wants me to work on; he thinks there are a couple things more to do before I go,” Schiliro said. “So that’s what I’m going to do.”

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