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Daley, meanwhile, was on his way out, resigning and making way for Lew to take over as chief of staff.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney mused from the podium earlier this year as reporters were speculating about Lew’s replacement at OMB that Nabors might be the administration’s MVP.
Inside the West Wing, Nabors offers “wise, substantive and unvarnished insight and counsel to the president and the other members of the senior staff,” Carney said in an interview. “He is soft-spoken, but he commands attention in the room, whether it’s in the Oval Office or on Capitol Hill. He speaks with a great deal of authority and without bias.”
Republicans praise Nabors for keeping politics out of the negotiating room.
Stombres said he has a disarming sense of humor that can help amid a tense negotiation. At one meeting on the debt limit, Nabors brought cookies. When Stombres reached for one, Nabors quipped, “That will cost you.” The price? A couple hundred billion dollars.
Inside the White House, Nabors is linked tightly with Lew, who tapped him to be a top assistant at OMB during the Clinton administration.
Nabors “had that special ability to be the policy guy and understand what you need ... to translate the policy to the political world. ... It’s an unusual mix of skills,” Lew said.
Nabors was “always, in his humble way, staying in the background, never wanting any limelight but cranking away,” he added.
The two kept in touch over the years after Nabors went on to the House Appropriations Committee, and they subsequently reunited in the Obama administration.
“He can sharpen the pencil and do what you need to do to make the numbers work and understand what it means in the real world,” he said. Lew pointed to Nabors’ good relationships on both sides of the Capitol, despite coming up as a House guy.
“They don’t think of Rob as a House guy. He’s totally trusted on the Senate side, he’s totally trusted by Democrats and Republicans because he’s a straight shooter; his word is his bond.”
Nabors’ rise through Washington’s wonk ranks has been swift. He joined the appropriations staff in 2001 and was the top Democratic staffer on the committee three years later on the unanimous recommendation of the rest of the staff, Obey said.
The post put Nabors in the middle of the funding battles over the Iraq War and domestic spending with the Bush administration, and he negotiated bills among many competing interests on both sides of the aisle.
“That’s obviously good training for what he has to do now,” Obey said, adding that Nabors is the hardest-working staffer he’s ever met. “I don’t know when he sleeps.”
Nabors, the son of decorated Army officer Robert L. Nabors, is “driven by duty,” Obey said. “He sets standards for himself that are higher than anybody else set for him.”