Majority Formalizes K St. Ties

Posted February 14, 2007 at 6:41pm

As Congressional Democrats firm their grip on power, they are opening a regular channel of communication with corporate lobbyists.

Leaders from the new majorities in both chambers have begun meeting twice a month with K Street allies to keep them apprised of their agenda and strategy.

The huddles, organized by the centrist think tank Third Way, are bringing together as many as 80 lobbyists to hear updates from Democratic leadership aides.

Lobbyists familiar with the meetings said they are becoming a hot ticket as Democrats wrap up work on their “100 hours” agenda and turn their focus toward formulating plans for the rest of the year.

“The pivot to regular order means that everybody is really focused on how to start putting together the coalitions to get things done, and how to find ways to work with the business community so there isn’t a constant battle,” said one Democratic lobbyist with ties to leadership.

Unlike their predecessors in the GOP, Democratic leaders face the challenge of juggling two key but regularly conflicting constituencies: business and labor. While members of those two camps found a few areas of agreement during the previous Congress — most notably on pension and immigration reform — they are ramping up for battles on big-ticket items this year. They already have locked horns on a minimum-wage hike and foresee major clashes over health care, trade and union-organizing measures.

And while Democratic leaders are keeping corporate interests attuned to their plans, they are closely coordinating with labor unions, whose backing helped restore the party to power. On Wednesday, presidents of about a half-dozen major unions met with majority leaders in both chambers to discuss their priorities. Twenty-two Senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), turned out for one meeting. Union officials got a separate audience with a full complement of leaders on the other side of the Capitol, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), according to those in attendance.

“There was a recognition that we won’t get everything we want done this year, but [Democratic leaders] expressed their happiness at being in the majority, and everybody from the union side shared that opinion,” said one source at the meetings.

The gathering of corporate lobbyists, meanwhile, revives an irregular meeting with Senate Democrats that Third Way initiated late last year.

The organization started the event to replace one founded by Senate Democratic aides. The original meeting, informally known as the Monday Group, was shuttered early last year when Democrats on Capitol Hill grew nervous about appearances while seeking to make ethics reform a central campaign message.

While the crowd at the new meeting claims many familiar faces and is still held on alternating Mondays, there are some differences. It has moved from its original location at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to a rented conference room in the Hall of States Building on North Capitol Street. House aides are now looped in. And the ranks of K Streeters in attendance have grown, including some Republicans.

“The list is large and very inclusive. We’ve got nothing to hide,” said Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president for public affairs and a co-chairman of the meeting.

He said fundraising pitches from leadership are off-limits, as are lobbying pitches from the crowd. Instead, the session provides an opportunity for information sharing on the issue of the day. A meeting on Jan. 22, the day before the State of the Union address, focused on the Democratic response to the president’s speech. Another, earlier this month, centered on the Iraq War debate in the Senate and a report from the House Democrats’ retreat.

“There’s so much misinformation in this town. It’s like a game of telephone: When you get two steps removed, the information gets less accurate,” said Jonathon Jones, who co-founded the original meetings as chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). Now a lobbyist with Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart, Jones co-hosts the meetings with Bennett. “This is an opportunity for leadership to communicate directly with people downtown and give them the facts.”

One lobbyist in regular attendance added, “There is no such thing as too much information being put out to the public, no such thing as too much dialogue.”

The next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 26, will feature two top Reid aides — Penny Lee, senior adviser for communications, and Mark Wetjen, counsel and senior policy adviser — and, from the House, Gina Mahoney, Hoyer’s senior policy adviser, according to an invitation.