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Capitol Hill feels Obama’s hand

The president-elect’s influence is altering both policy directions and the partisan tone in Congress.

By Staff writer / November 24, 2008

Emissary: Rahm Emanuel (c.), tapped as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, was on Capitol Hill last week to meet with lawmakers of both parties.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP



Even before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama is becoming an essential player in decisionmaking on Capitol Hill.

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From the pre-Thanksgiving “pardon” of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut to the shape of an economic recovery plan, the Obama team is setting directions even as it reaches out to both sides of the aisle in a bid to set a new tone and fast-action pace for the next Congress.

First the tone: practical, pragmatic, and – at least for now – essentially bipartisan.

In a break with recent practice, orientation events for incoming lawmakers were bipartisan – a tribute to Mr. Obama’s calls for a new tone on the Hill. Freshmen gathering here last week noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged them all to think as “independent representatives of your district” in the next Congress.

To signal a new tone, the speaker welcomed the freshmen with a bipartisan dinner – a first, she said – and led them onto the House floor together. “This class could be the class from which a spirit of civility and bipartisanship is strengthened in the Congress of the United States,” she said at a Nov. 21 briefing.

His reputation for knife-edged partisanship notwithstanding, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been on a charm offensive among Senate Republicans to solicit their ideas about education, healthcare, taxes, energy policy, and national security.

“As President-elect Obama has repeatedly said, the challenges for the country are large – the problems we face of [such] a serious magnitude – that there is enough area and enough goodwill for ideas from both parties to solve these challenges,” he said Nov. 20 before meeting with Republican senators.

‘Fresh start’ in the Senate

The Senate has been a sticking point for Democratic legislation in the current Congress and, with the outcome of two Senate races still undecided, Democrats remain short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.

“It’s a fresh start,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who met with Obama and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona last week. “[Obama] seems to be a practical guy.”

Some Senate Democrats had been eager to expel Senator Lieberman from a plum committee chairmanship – or even deny his participation in their caucus – because he had endorsed GOP nominee John McCain in the presidential race. But that drive lost momentum after Obama personally called on Democrats to keep Lieberman in place. The Democratic Caucus voted 42 to 13 last week to allow Lieberman to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. However, he lost his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, including a subcommittee chairmanship.