W.H. launches charm offensive with new GOP chairsBy: John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman
December 13, 2010
House Republicans don’t take power for another three weeks, but the White House is already engaged in a behind-the-scenes charm offensive designed to build relationships with incoming committee chairmen before they become powerful adversaries.
The GOP chairmen are getting congratulatory phone calls from President Barack Obama, and private meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder. The incoming Agriculture Committee chairman, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), is setting up a regular monthly lunch with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The White House's efforts moved into high gear shortly after the Republican victory on Election Day.
The White House relationship building doesn’t mean that Obama is ready to embrace his fiercest Republican critics on Capitol Hill, or automatically capitulate to their demands.
But it does signal that the White House is trying to work the referee a bit before Republican chairmen start sending subpoenas and summoning White House witnesses for committee investigations.
In these meetings, Obama administration officials are promising cooperation and straight dealing with the GOP power players, yet there’s also a public relations and political strategy in play — the White House is seeking political high ground and trying to position the Obama administration as willing to work with Republicans rather than succumb to partisan gridlock.
For their part, House Republicans, led by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker-designate for the 112th Congress, know that despite all the heated rhetoric of the 2010 elections, they need to work with a Democratic White House and Democratic Senate in order to achieve any of the lofty goals they have set themselves. To that end, the presumptive GOP chairmen have moved to position themselves as sober-minded partners in the business of governance. “It’s very smart,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of the White House outreach. Last Wednesday, Mica met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former House Republican colleague. “I know Ray and I have a lot of confidence in dealing with him.”
The day after meeting with Mica, LaHood announced that the Transportation Department will kick in an additional $342 million for SunRail, a commuter rail project for central Florida strongly backed by Mica, money that was available after it was rejected by Ohio and Wisconsin officials. The federal commitment to SunRail is already in excess of $2 billion. Florida is expected to be a key battleground in Obama’s 2012 reelection run.
At the powerful Ways and Means Committee, incoming chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) has already met with Geithner for a 45 minute, one-on-one meeting. Those two will be critical players on tax issues in the coming year.
“I thought it was very constructive,” said Camp of the session in his office with Geithner. “We covered a lot of issues.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the newly minted Budget Committee chairman, said Geithner reached out to him before Thanksgiving, and Ryan is scheduled to have lunch with OMB Director Jack Lew this week. Lew, who will write the fiscal 2012 Obama budget, stands to be either an adversary or a negotiating partner with Ryan in early 2011.
“[Geithner] was reaching out, and he offered to increase contacts” with other administration officials, Ryan said. “They know they have to deal with us.”
The charm offensive extends to some of the administration’s sharpest critics, including incoming Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who several months ago was openly threatening to issue a barrage of subpoenas in order to "find out what this administration has been doing that the American people don't know."
Yet Smith, who held a private meeting with Holder two weeks ago, now pledges to work in a responsible way with senior Justice officials.
“I would go very slowly before we ever got to subpoenas,” Smith declared, although he pledged to begin holding oversight hearings for DOJ very early next year. “I think that’s for extraordinary circumstances, and I certainly hope and expect that we would have cooperation with our oversight and that wouldn’t be necessary.”
Smith added: “I’m not threatening subpoenas.”
Smith said of Holder that “obviously there’s issues that we disagree on, some issues that we agree on. I consider us to have a good working relationship, and he’s looking forward to coming to testify before the Judiciary Committee.”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who will chair the Agriculture Committee, said Vilsack has already called him to try to set up a regular monthly lunch to discuss farm issues.
“[Vilsack] told me that he and [outgoing chairman] Collin Peterson had a monthly lunch and he wants to do the same with me,” Lucas said. “We’re trying to set that up now.”
Lucas, whose panel expects a huge infusion of new members from the incoming GOP freshmen class on his committee, said he wants to draft a revised farm bill sometime in 2012, one “that will be smaller, maybe much smaller, than what we have seen in the past.”
And on defense issues, the president himself has reached out to Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who will take over the Armed Services Committee. McKeon said Obama called him the day after the election to say to “say we need to work together in a bipartisan way.”
McKeon, who has been sharply critical of the White House’s handling of terrorism issues, pledged to do so.
Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will take over from Democrat Howard Berman at the Foreign Affairs Committee, also got a phone call from Obama following the GOP victory on Election Day and later attended a select meeting with Clinton and other lawmakers.
Ros-Lehtinen has also been contacted by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, whose portfolio includes some international finance matters. Ros-Lehtinen, who said she “looked forward to working with” Clinton and other administration officials on foreign-policy issues, was even chatted up by Obama during the White House Christmas party last week, GOP aides added.
The Obama administration has made some of its highest profile entreaties to California Rep.Darrell Issa, the Republican who will chair the Oversight and Government Reform committee next year
After months of accusing the White House of various forms of malfeasance, Issa met with Vice President Joe Biden in the West Wing recently to talk about stimulus transparency and empowering inspectors general with subpoena power. Issa has also touched base with Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro.
On Thursday, Issa met in his office with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to discuss the central bank’s transparency problems. Bernanke, according to a source familiar with the meeting, said he would work with Issa to “advance [the committee’s] efforts” to shine a light on the Fed’s decisions during the 2008 U.S. financial crisis.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and John Brennan, a top Homeland Security adviser to Obama, don’t have the best of relationships. They hadn’t spoken for most of the last two years due to a disagreement. King even said at one point that Brennan ought to be fired.
But the night before the mid-term elections, Brennan called King personally, thanking the New York Republican — who will take over the Homeland Security Committee next year — for positive statements he had made on CBS’s “Face the Nation” regarding the administration’s handling of the Yemeni bomb plot. Since then, King has seen several overtures from officials at the super-secret National Security Agency.
After the election, though, came King’s wake-up call — literally. After a long night celebrating the Republicans’ romp, King went back to his Long Island home and unplugged all of his phones.
But while he was in a deep sleep, the White House called saying Obama wanted to speak with King. One aide remembered that King’s sister was staying with him, and she shook King awake to speak to Obama.
The next day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called King to congratulate him. Napolitano also checked in on Wednesday.
“It is important that we can have a working relationship so when we do disagree it will be meaningful. It won’t just be partisan,” King told POLITICO.