John Hilley: White House Horse-Trader

John Hilley has scoped out every flat place in conference rooms from the White House to Capitol Hill.

He's known, oddly enough, for holding budget talks from a prone position on marble-tiled and Persian-carpeted floors. But no one would accuse him of lying down on the job. In fact, the White House point man with Congress may deserve much credit for the final accord - if and when a deal is done.

"I'd almost call it the Hilley budget," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, speaking of the role Mr. Hilley plays in the current negotiations.

A self-effacing craver of anonymity known for his calm demeanor and patient smile, Hilley is considered by some to be the epitome of invisible Washington, the worker ant busy constructing policies that affect the spending of billions of dollars and the lives of every American.

Being the biggest budget wonk at the White House is a proud distinction for Hilley - one that has made him a valued aide to President Clinton. As director for legislative affairs, he serves as chief horse-swapper between Mr. Clinton and GOP leaders.

"You have to always remember that what you do does impact people, because so much of it seems so abstract," says Hilley. "A billion dollars here and this program for this program, but it's really people's lives."

In coming weeks, Hilley's work may help to determine part of Clinton's legacy. "It will be so fine to get this deal over with, but we have a rough few weeks ahead of us," Hilley predicts of the still-unresolved details.

These "details" include determining who in what economic bracket will benefit most from $85 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, and how much spending will be curtailed on programs like Medicare and student loans.

Up at 5:30 a.m., in his office by 7, Hilley attends the first meeting of his 14-hour days at 7:45 in the Roosevelt Room with White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and his staff.

That meeting is followed by another hour-long strategy session with "the budget group," the core White House staff including Mr. Bowles, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines, who are all immersed in the minutia of the negotiations.

Then it's down to the auto pool, where he signs out a plain black, standard-issue government car for the first of what can be a half dozen trips up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

On a recent Friday, for example, Hilley saw Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas and attended the House caucus. He went back to the White House, then returned to the Hill for separate meetings with House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee. He again backtracked to the White House for a meeting on welfare-to-work issues. "That's sort of a day ... coordinating policy issues and then going up to the Hill to try to implement them," Hilley says.

Hilley, who earned a PhD in economics at Stanford University in California, has 14 years of Washington under his belt, most of it spent on Capitol Hill in budget committees. His understanding of the culture of Congress makes him an asset to the Clinton administration.

"John's a lot more in contact with the decisionmakers [than his predecessor was]," says Kenneth Kies, chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Republicans say that despite his nice-guy image, Hilley is a tough adversary when it comes to priorities the president is most passionate about, such as his tuition tax-credit proposal.

RELATIONS between Clinton and the GOP leadership have held up despite the driving pace. Much has been made of the aura of goodwill. Some observers describe a sort of "bonding."

But some Democratic lawmakers have complained of being left in the dark about budget negotiations, and others say the president's effort to carve an agreement out of the political center has alienated the party's liberal core. That sentiment, however, is not universal.

"I don't feel squeezed," says Senator Daschle. "The majority has clear advantages in driving the agenda. [Hilley] has to conduct himself accordingly, but ... does everything he can to be inclusive."

Hilley's prospects for success are improved because of Democrats' strong bargaining position. "Republicans are boxed in," says former GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, who met July 15 with Clinton and the budget team. "Republicans have to have a deal."

If an agreement is struck, Hilley expects to get up off the floor - a position he finds more comfortable than sitting all day - and take August off. An avid golfer, he hit the links with Clinton over the weekend but plays more with his wife and two teenage sons. For this consummate money manager, it'll be a relief to talk about a different sort of green.

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