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These days lobbying Congress is a tricky affair. Partisan rancor has reached a fever pitch, lobbying reform is the topic du jour, and members are wary of lurking scandal. And that’s just what K Street faces. Lobbying on behalf of President George W. Bush is even more of a minefield. Just last week the White House’s budget proposals got slammed, the president’s domestic spying program was under review, and the number of days until a lame-duck session continued to dwindle quickly. “Leg[islative] affairs has clout if the president does,” says Charles Brain, a lobbyist at Capitol Hill Strategies and head of legislative affairs under former President Bill Clinton. “If he’s weak then all the relationships, all the ability, aren’t going to get you anything.” In the past, selling the president’s agenda has fallen to lobbying heavyweights such as Bryce Harlow, William Timmons, and Kenneth Duberstein, men comfortable pulling the levers of power for both political and corporate clients. But these days capitalizing on what’s left of Bush’s leverage in Congress falls to Candida Wolff, the first woman to act as the president’s chief influence broker on the Hill. Wolff, 41, declined to be interviewed for this story. Wolff’s ascension to the job came in 2005, after Bush’s first two chief lobbyists, Nicholas Calio of Citigroup Corp. and David Hobbs of the Hobbs Group , went back into the private sector.
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“Candi’s probably the most capable and intellectual of the three as far as legislative acumen,” says a Republican lobbyist. “However, she lacks the gravitas that a Calio has.” Perhaps that’s because, unlike her predecessors, Wolff doesn’t have strong K Street connections or a history as a corporate lobbyist. After spending five years as an attorney at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld , Wolff cut her political teeth as tax counsel for Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.). Climbing the Republican staffer ladder, Wolff focused on legislative issues as deputy staff director for policy for the Senate Republican Policy Committee and as policy director for the Republican Platform Committee. A political veteran, Wolff spent the first three years of the Bush administration as top Senate lobbyist for Vice President Dick Cheney. She moved into her current position last year after a brief stint as a lobbyist downtown at Washington Council Ernst & Young , working on issues like the Internet tax bill. While most lobbyists say a background as a “contacts” lobbyist is not necessary for pushing the president’s initiatives on Capitol Hill, one former leadership aide says Wolff, perhaps because of her history, undervalues personal relationships and the ties that develop through socializing or taking trips with lawmakers and their staffs. But Ado Machida, a former colleague and senior adviser at Akin Gump, says Wolff just has her own style. “[Wolff] speaks 50 miles an hour,” says Machida. “She’s very focused, trying to get things done. She manages her team very well. Their mott �Get it done quietly, efficiently, and quickly.’ “ Wolff hasn’t been fielding legislative softballs since taking the position. Her first assignment: passing Social Security reform. It was an obvious flop, getting her tenure off to a rocky start. But despite the high-profile setback, Wolff rebounded strongly, helping to pass long-languishing bills favored by the administration on restricting class-action lawsuits, tightening bankruptcy standards, and granting liability protection to the gun industry. “None of these [issues] would have moved without her team’s involvement,” says Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce . “The legislative shop is in an awkward [position] having to [lobby] the opposition party and your own party.” Lobbyists point to the legislative battle over the Central American Free Trade Agreement as an example of Wolff’s lobbying acumen. “A trade agreement probably has got five or six people who wake up in the morning and care about it,” says Brain. “The White House legislative affairs shop starts from zero, creates it, and gets all the votes.” Those victories were offset by another large-scale political failure: Harriet Miers’ unsuccessful nomination to the Supreme Court . But some have a hard time faulting Wolff for Miers’ chilly reception in Congress. “Legislative affairs doesn’t set policy, they communicate it,” says Jade West, a lobbyist at the National Wholesalers Association . “If there are people faulting the message itself . . . that is not the legislative affairs’ job.” Wolff’s challenge in the coming months will be to push White House initiatives on immigration reform, health care, and finishing the tax reform package before Bush’s political clout wanes following the midterm elections. How effective she is in doing that could hinge on whether the two top deputies still there stay on board. Already, Matthew Kirk, Wolff’s top Senate lobbyist, opted to move downtown last week to head up the Washington office of insurance giant Hartford Financial Services Group . “Matt [being] gone creates a big hole because he was very effective in the Senate,” says Machida. The two remaining top aides are Doug Badger, a former aide to Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), and Brian Conklin, a former colleague of Wolff’s at Washington Council Ernst & Young who now heads lobbying at the House for the president. The White House has not announced who will replace Kirk.

Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected] .

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