Obama moves to defrost relations between White House, Congress

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman who'll become President-elect Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, got a standing ovation on Tuesday when he met behind closed doors with House Democrats.

"He said he'll have our back," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "He'll look out for House members. The idea is, we have his back, we do what Obama wants (and) he'll do what we want. Something like that."

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats were crediting Obama with setting the tone for their vote Tuesday to let Sen. Joseph Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship and continue caucusing with them, despite the Connecticut independent's extensive support for Se. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.

"What happened this morning was in large measure due to him," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said of Obama. "We all know that Senator Obama has said that he doesn't think anybody should hold a grudge, that we've got too much work to do."

Obama, like most incoming presidents, has promised a new spirit of cooperation between the White House and Capitol Hill.

What may add more substance to Obama's pledge, however, beyond Democrats' control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, is that he's the first sitting senator to win the presidency in nearly half a century.

He's already made some strategic hires from the Hill for the White House and is poised to make more. And he can look to allies from both parties who remain in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

"It helps immensely that he understands us, and he's hiring people who also understand us," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

That doesn't mean that Obama will get Democratic cooperation on everything. Some liberal House Democrats already are showing early resistance to Obama's desire to beef up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan as he draws down troops in Iraq.

And Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees taxes, trade, pensions and health care, said that he'll not be bound blindly by Obama proposals.

"My goal is to work with Republicans. My goal is to work with everyone," Baucus said. "We all have to keep an open mind about this. There's going to be a lot of knee-jerking on both sides, and my job will be to help stop the knee-jerking."

Still, many congressional veterans see Obama as being able to break long-hard ice between the White House and Congress.

His consideration of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., his primary election rival, as his potential secretary of state reflects that approach.

Likewise, Obama's and Emanuel's meeting Monday with McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain ally, was evidence of his apparent bipartisan approach to Hill strategy.

Graham said he was optimistic he could find common ground with Obama on the issue of detaining and trying suspected terrorists. "He's been very open. He understands the issue, and he understands its complications."

The president elect has other friends in Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

In addition, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is the vice president-elect.

In another measure of Obama's outreach to Capitol Hill, last week he announced that his assistant for legislative affairs will be Phil Schiliro, who previously advised Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel, is seen as an effective strategist who can keep liberal Democrats in check, manage fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats and look for common ground with some Republicans

In contrast, President George W. Bush rarely reached across the aisle. Even President Clinton, who also never served in Congress, had trouble with his own party. Clinton's 1996 re-election was marked by "triangulation," where he tried to position himself as an independent force between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Obama means to stay close to his former colleagues. He built goodwill with many freshman senators, who in turn campaigned for him. McCaskill, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen.-elect Mark Warner, D-Va., are among them.

Obama also counts among his friends several veteran Democrats. One is Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the most respected members of the Senate. Kennedy is likely to play a leading role, along with Baucus, in shaping legislation to greatly expand health coverage for Americans.

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