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The Democratic takeover of Congress last fall signaled a potential sea change for many groups who have spent much of the past decade courting Republicans. Bloody bidding wars broke out for lobbyists with Democratic bona fides, and as some prepared for a long-awaited return to power, many Republicans braced for exile to the political hinterlands. Well, things have changed since the election, but they haven’t changed that much � much less, in fact, than most anticipated that they would. Sarah Smith, head of the Americans for Tax Reform’s K Street Project, which helps find jobs for conservatives, says the closely divided Senate has left many lobby shops weighing the odds. “It hasn’t been a very conclusive switch on K Street, though I’d argue the Democrats have the upper hand,” she says. Sure, some Republican firms have lost clients, but others are holding steady. And while Republican lobbyists are now more likely to partner with Democratic shops, most haven’t seen their clients flee. Further, interest groups with traditionally Republican ties haven’t necessarily seen government funding diminish. But Congress started up again last week with an ambitious fall agenda, and this session could be a true test of whether and how much things will change in Washington over the next several months. For one, Democrats are under heavy pressure to improve their poll numbers. Hearings on the Iraq War are expected to consume at least a large chunk of September, and some within the party have criticized Democrats for granting the president an extension of his warrantless wiretapping program before the recess. Appropriations deadlines are also looming. Democratic leaders have so far said they are committed to a “pay-as-you-go” policy that could force tough choices when it comes to spending bills � lobbyists’ traditional bread-and-butter work. And President George W. Bush has threatened to wield his veto power more aggressively than in the past. The combination could lead to an even more partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill this fall. So where does that leave the scores of lobbyists and associations scrambling to influence Congress? THE MORE THINGS CHANGE… Democratic stock soared among lobbyists after last November’s election, and for a little while, it seemed as if every firm was competing to hire them. But Stephen Ryan, head of the government strategies practice group for McDermott Will & Emery, says there’s still a shortage of talented Democrats making the leap from public service to private practice. “I think I have a pretty good feel for the people moving and talent,” Ryan says. “There’s a lot of very attractive Democrats. If they announced they wanted to leave the Congress, we could find them a job very quickly right now. . . . Clients are much more interested in backfilling open positions with somebody with a Democratic background.” But, Ryan says, many Democratic Hill staffers are relishing a return to the majority and waiting to see if the next election yields a Democratic presidential administration and more interesting opportunities in the public sector. Instead, he says, “I’m seeing a huge number of talented Republican risumis leaving the government” after long stints of public service. And many of those Republicans don’t seem to be struggling when it comes to finding new positions. Big trade associations, law firms, and lobby shops say that for most of them, the election reinforced the need for a balanced, bipartisan staff. And anyway, Republicans still control agencies under the executive branch and wield power in the narrowly divided Senate, where a single filibuster can derail legislation. That means traditionally Republican firms are partnering with more Democratic shops when necessary. For example, the Republican-leaning Livingston Group and Democratic-slanted Podesta Group have started a joint venture, PLM Group, and landed a major account with Egypt. Aric Newhouse, a former chief of staff for Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), joined the National Association of Manufacturers six months ago as vice president of government relations. Earlier this summer, the association also hired Ryan Modlin, a Democrat who had worked for Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), to head lobbying efforts aimed at the House. Both new hires came to the job with a background in manufacturing issues, says J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for NAM, and were hired because they were the best candidates.
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Hires come “across the spectrum, but we make an effort to really bring people in here who can get things done,” Fielder says. Newhouse says Republican lobbyists aren’t necessarily getting shut out � at least, not if they have the weight of a major organization such as NAM behind them. “The business community has had an interest in hiring Democrats over the last several months, and I expect that will continue,” Newhouse says. “That said, Republicans � high-quality candidates � are going to continue to be successful.” Other groups with traditionally Republican constituencies have also moved to position themselves on Capitol Hill. Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which was formed in the spring, says abstinence education advocates have been talking about a trade association to represent the field since before the election, but adds that proponents know that “some of the critics of abstinence education are in leadership positions.” Abstinence education received significant funding boosts under the Republican Congress, and so far, Democrats have left that funding intact. But Huber says the field needs an advocate and cannot continue to depend on “those who had historically been advocates.?.?.?. It makes so much more sense to be broad-based.” Huber says her fledgling organization is working to build support among the new majority and to dispel what she says are myths about abstinence education. “We really want to reach across both sides of the aisle,” she says, adding that she encourages members of Congress to visit abstinence programs in their home districts. …THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME? If anything, the closely divided Congress has reminded those who got used to single-party rule that it doesn’t last forever. Bipartisan firms say they’ve known that all along. “I think our philosophy all along has been, you’ve got to work both sides of the aisle and have effective Democratic and Republican lobbyists. We founded the firm on that, and the firm has now done well” through a number of power shifts, says Jeff Connaughton, vice chairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates. Most lobbyists say their success or failure depends more on building a good case for their client � and recruiting a strong congressional advocate � than it does on partisan ties. “A lobbyist doesn’t get line items in the [appropriations] bill without a member of Congress sponsoring it,” says Loren Monroe, chief operating officer of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, one of the city’s most prominent Republican firms. “In general, companies come to Washington to solve problems or create opportunities. We have a 15-year track record of helping our clients accomplish goals.” Spending bills could prove to be the true test for lobbyists this year. This Congress has yet to send an appropriations bill to the president, who has both promised to veto bills that exceed his spending limits and accused Democrats of plotting a tax increase. Democrats, in turn, have vowed to provide a clear funding source for all new spending instead of creating new debt � something that could prove divisive if it puts existing programs on the chopping block. The stacked agenda facing Congress “creates tremendous competing pressures,” Newhouse says. “This is a challenge that Republicans faced as a governing party for the past several years. In order to govern effectively, you have to produce results.” Republicans in the Senate can block Democratic initiatives, Newhouse says, but it’s a risky strategy: They have to answer to their constituents, too. In this city, the partisan winds are always changing direction, and lobbyists need shelter in every storm.


Reporter Jeff Horwitz contributed to this article. Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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