In a town where public sniping rules the day, trust is in precious little supply and compromise seems out of reach, White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors has managed to build a measure of goodwill that stretches broadly across both sides of the aisle.
Nabors has kept an aggressively low public profile despite years of negotiating trillion-dollar deals, first as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee under former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and later rising through the ranks at the White House. There might be no staffer less known but more important in Washington, D.C., as the nation heads this fall into another shutdown showdown and faces looming deadlines for tax increases and spending cuts.
Republicans call him a pro with whom they can work. Congressional Democrats say he almost single-handedly rescued their relationship with the White House after a rocky period last year.
“Rob Nabors was the guy that prevented everything from going off the rails for this president and his relationship with Congress ... through the worst of the worst,” said David Krone, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Last July, in the midst of the ill-fated grand bargain talks between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Democrats ripped into two emissaries from the president — Nabors and then-Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew.
Reports about the “bargain” were leaking — and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) described Senate Democrats’ mood as “volcanic” over not being included in the reported deal.
Lew protested that there was no agreement and that the reports about the deal were wrong. But the meeting marked a low point for the relationship between the White House and Reid. The Majority Leader felt that the White House under the direction of then-Chief of Staff William Daley had embarked on an ill- advised end run around Democrats.
According to Krone, Nabors sensed the need for damage control and went out of his way to make sure Reid and Krone were briefed.
Reid, in turn, went to bat for Nabors’ position inside the White House.
“He told the president, ‘I don’t trust Daley, I trust Rob,’” Krone said.
Republicans remain deeply unhappy with their relations with the White House, with Boehner last month blasting Obama as having “checked out” since Labor Day last year. But the complaints don’t apply to Nabors.
“The relationship between Congress and this White House has been very strained, but personally on Rob, it’s not his fault. ... Sometimes I wished that he was in charge,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said.
“We’ve been in some very delicate negotiations, and I trust him,” said Steve Stombres, chief of staff for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Stombres, who has known Nabors since high school, continued: “If you can trust somebody, you can work with him. If you can find common ground, Rob’s the kind of guy who can find it.”
Nabors declined to be quoted for this article.
Before the grand bargain saga, Nabors impressed Krone as he took a leading role in negotiating the April 2011 deal to avert the first shutdown showdown between the administration and the new Republican House.
Krone and Nabors didn’t know each other well at first. Jim Messina had been Krone’s primary contact, and he pointed Krone to Nabors.
They quickly hit it off, and with a shutdown approaching, Nabors, Krone and Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, held round-the-clock negotiations to head it off. By the end, Nabors was practically living in Krone’s office.
A little more than an hour before the midnight deadline, the trio shook hands on the deal in a fourth-floor room tucked away in the Capitol, averting the first serious shutdown threat in a generation.
Both sides got some of what they wanted — Boehner could sell a $38 billion spending cut to his tea party wing and the White House managed to structure the deal to push off most of the pain while protecting priorities such as Obama’s signature health care overhaul and funding for Planned Parenthood.
In an interview, Lew, now chief of staff, praised Nabors as someone who is “creative” in looking for solutions that would work for both parties. Lew said Nabors deserves a lot of credit for helping avert the April shutdown in a way that preserved the president’s priorities.
“If you have a passion for public service and a commitment to getting things done, [you want to] find solutions that work for both sides,” Lew said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to draw lines.”
With the August 2011 debt deal, Nabors would again play a key role — even penning the last offer the administration sent to Boehner’s office before the Speaker pulled out of the grand bargain talks for the second and final time.
After the deal fell apart and a fallback trigger and cuts were passed instead, relations with Hill Democrats improved. The president shifted to his jobs act — a far easier sell to his party than the cuts to Medicare he had floated to Boehner.
Reid now meets weekly with Nabors, and Krone credits him with keeping Reid and the president on the same page.
Working with Reid instead of around him paid off, Krone said, with the endgame on the payroll tax cut deal, for example. Senate Democrats decided to stand their ground days before Christmas last year and refused to pass a House GOP payroll tax bill. It wouldn’t have worked if the White House hadn’t stood shoulder to shoulder with Reid on that decision, which ultimately forced House leaders to cave and pass a bipartisan Senate measure.
“You stick with your wingman,” Krone said. “Things could have been really bad and really off track. Nabors was that glue that kept them and us in sync.”
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.”