Obama Hires Halt at Top

Posted January 28, 2009 at 6:32pm

When staffers for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gather tonight at the downtown restaurant Co Co. Sala to send one of their own off to the White House, it will mark the first time a Pelosi aide has left the Speaker’s suites for a gig on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pelosi protocol chief Micaela Fernandez is graduating, in a class of one, to become special assistant to the president and director of Oval Office operations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) troops are similarly sticking close. So far, nobody has left for the Obama administration, though chief counsel Ron Weich is expected to join the legislative affairs team at the Justice Department and senior policy adviser Bob Herbert is in the mix to head the Federal Aviation Administration.

Three months after Barack Obama’s victory opened up a new universe of opportunity for ambitious Congressional hands, there has been surprisingly little movement out of the orbits of the two Democratic leaders.

It’s not because the Obama White House isn’t interested in Capitol Hill talent. Indeed, Obama, the first sitting Senator since John F. Kennedy to win the presidency, has plucked liberally from his old stomping grounds as he seeks to staff up.

Congressional staffers are at a special premium considering that the new administration’s prohibition on hiring lobbyists blacklisted the rich pool of Washington experience that punches the clock on K Street.

But the senior aides in the two top Congressional offices are mostly staying put. Explanations vary, but the lack of staff cross-pollination between the White House and the leading Democrats’ offices appears to stem from a hesitance on the administration’s part to poach treasured lieutenants from the two lawmakers it is counting on to implement its agenda, a reinforcing desire by the leaders to keep their staffs whole, and an aversion among senior aides to leave hard-won perches at the top of the Congressional ladder at a moment of historic possibilities for the legislative branch.

The stability in Reid’s office results from an effort by the Nevadan himself to keep his team intact as he heads into a difficult re-election fight. Following the Nov. 4 elections, Reid made an appeal to his senior staff to stay on board, sources close to the Majority Leader said.

“He needs his folks going into a tough cycle and he’s got a loyal staff, period,” one senior Democratic strategist said.

While it does not appear that Reid ever told the White House to back off, several Senate insiders said he didn’t need to.

“There’s an unwritten rule you don’t go and pillage leadership staff when you’re in the White House,” one senior Democratic aide said. “They know he’s up for re-election. And they want people who have been there 15, 16 years to counsel them from the inside and be their sherpas.”

Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said his boss would not stand in the way of anyone on his staff who wanted to make the leap to the administration.

“He’d be extremely proud of any member of his staff that continued their public service in the executive branch. He’d be supportive,” he said.

It’s less clear why Pelosi’s aides aren’t finding new berths in the White House, though some may yet. Arshi Siddiqui, the Speaker’s top adviser on tax issues, is in talks to work for Larry Summers at the National Economic Council — a get the administration has pursued gingerly.

“Obviously there’s been some trepidation in the administration about how the Speaker would react,” a Pelosi insider said. “That has to be part of the calculation.”

Another potential Obama pickup from the Speaker’s office begged off a job switch over lifestyle considerations. Sources close to the administration and the Speaker’s office said Amy Rosenbaum, Pelosi’s policy director, had opportunities to join the White House but brushed them aside because she has young children and the working hours on the Hill are more reasonable.

That logic frequently prevails for senior staff contemplating a jump, said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and an aide to then-Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) when Clinton took office.

“There is a lot to be said for working on the Hill with a Democratic president. While a White House job may be exciting, [on the Hill] you interact with the White House and agencies all the time. And you get recess,” he said.

But it does not appear the Obama administration has approached any other senior Pelosi staffers to offer them posts. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The stability of Reid and Pelosi’s squads stands in stark contrast to the parade of staffers from other Congressional offices beating a path to the White House.

Obama began grabbing top talent off the Hill early in the summer to fill out his campaign after he wrapped up the Democratic nomination. The operation hired the top staffer to Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), a senior aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), a pair of staffers from his Illinois Senate colleague Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a top floor aide to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), and key aides to Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.).

Most have since found administration posts. And they’ve been joined by others. Among them: two top aides to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), a top aide to House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and, just Wednesday, two aides to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.).

The stasis in the Speaker’s office is not without precedent. Eight years ago, when President George W. Bush was setting up his legislative affairs team, he poached two aides to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). But only a handful of Hastert aides jumped ship for White House jobs after that.

“When you’re the top dog in the Speaker or leader’s office, it’s exciting to work for the president — no doubt about that,” former Hastert spokesman John Feehery said. “But you also have a loyalty to your boss, and it’s not easy to leave. And there was a desire by the Speaker himself to keep his people with him.”

Likewise, eight years prior to Bush, Dorothy Jackson, then an aide to Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), worked on Bill Clinton’s transition team and had an offer to come aboard. She demurred.

“I was having a lot of experiences that were once in a lifetime” working for Foley, she said. “I wasn’t interested.”