Obama's calls to lawmakers 'unheard of'

Now that he has won the White House, President-elect Barack Obama is courting another set of voters: the 535 members of Congress who can make or break his presidency.

Obama, the first president elected directly from the legislative branch since John F. Kennedy, has packed his White House team with respected legislators and connected congressional staffers and has surprised lawmakers with phone calls — and not just to Democrats.

"This is unheard of," Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who is retiring after 14 years in Congress, said of Obama's calls to Republicans. "I don't know of another president-elect who has done this."

No president since Gerald Ford, a former House minority leader, has spent as much energy mastering Congress' 18th-century etiquette and byzantine turf wars as Obama, a former senator.

None since Franklin Roosevelt has needed the lawmakers' cooperation more urgently.

Faced with a shaky stock market, tight credit and rising unemployment rates, Obama is pushing members of the 111th Congress — which convenes two weeks before his Jan. 20 inauguration — to begin work on a massive economic stimulus package.

To make that happen, he needs to avoid the mistakes of his two Democratic predecessors, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, two Southern governors who saw their agendas bog down early despite comfortable Democratic majorities.

The Carter administration's chilly relations with Democratic leaders began when Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, refused to give then-speaker of the House Tip O'Neill extra tickets for an inaugural gala.

Clinton's failure to consult Democratic heavyweights such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Rep. John Dingell on his health care proposal left them less willing to do the backroom dealing to push it through.

"Presidents sometimes feel things will happen just because they say so," said Leon Panetta, who served 24 years in the House before joining the Clinton White House as budget director and, later, chief of staff. "That's not how it works in Washington. Congress can be a huge barrier."

For his economic stimulus package, Obama must convince Democratic fiscal conservatives that deficit spending is necessary. His plans to move the nation from a carbon-based economy to a "green" economy could run into skeptics from oil-producing states and the Rust Belt. And his effort to overhaul the nation's health care system would require winning enough Republicans to prevent a Senate filibuster.

Obama signaled his intention to make congressional relations a priority with his selection of Sen. Joe Biden, a 35-year Senate veteran, as his running mate. His first hire after the election was Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., as his chief of staff, who also served as a top aide in the Clinton administration's chaotic early days.

"He understands better than anyone how a new president's programs can get off-track," former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry said of Emanuel.

In addition, Obama tapped Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, and Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader, to Cabinet posts.

Obama's congressional ties run deep: incoming White House congressional liaison Phil Schiliro worked for powerful House Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., as did Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu. Melody Barnes, tapped by Obama to be his domestic policy director, served as a top aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Obama advantage

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