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

The new president starts out on Capitol Hill from a position of political strength. He was elected by a convincing majority, and starts his term in the midst of an economic emergency that could give impetus to his initiatives.

"The political system tends to be easier to navigate in times of crisis," Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann said.

Another big advantage: a humbler Democratic majority.

When Carter became president, Democrats had controlled Capitol Hill for 22 years. Chairpersons used to running their own fiefdoms were reluctant to share their power. By the time Clinton took office, the Democratic congressional barons had gone unchallenged for 38 years.

The current Democratic majority is just 2 years old.

"We were out in the wilderness 12 years," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., referring to 1994 through 2006 when Republicans controlled Congress. Hoyer said Democrats know that to keep their hold on Congress, they will have to help the new president produce.

Recent Democratic presidents have blown their political capital by irking Congress on matters of policy and protocol.

Carter demonstrated a "tin ear" when he began his presidency with a crusade against water projects championed by congressional leaders of his party, said James Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor who has studied presidential transitions.

Obama, who campaigned against "earmarks," special projects for individual congressional districts, could make the same mistake, Pfiffner said, "if he were to use up political capital and alienate members" with an early push to make good on his pledge.

Obama can't afford to work with just his own party, either.

In 1993, Democrats decided they didn't need to compromise with Republicans to win passage of Clinton's health care plan. At the time, the Democratic edge in the House was 82 votes; in the Senate, it was 14 votes.

"I was in the room when the decision was made," recalled Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who in 1993 was a newly elected member of Congress and president of his freshman class. "I didn't see the problem in going ahead and doing it in a partisan way. We had this big cushion."

The political disaster that ensued was a major factor in costing Democrats control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

Clyburn, who is responsible for counting votes on each bill as majority whip, said the experience changed his view about bipartisan cooperation. "It made a believer out of me," he said.

Democrats next year will have a 79-seat advantage in the House and a Senate edge of 17 votes, with one Senate race undecided.

Calling Congress

In contrast to his Democratic predecessors, Obama can't seem to get enough feedback from Congress. He chats regularly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the deputy majority leader, is one of the president-elect's mentors.

Obama also has reached out to the lesser-known lawmakers. The president-elect telephoned leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition to reassure the fiscally conservative Democrats that he's serious about reducing the deficit, even though his stimulus plan would run it up in the short term.

Obama's calls to GOP lawmakers, though, have caused the most surprise. "Yeah, right," is what Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi said he first thought when Obama left a voice message on his answering machine at his Capitol Hill apartment.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the top-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, hung up twice on Obama before being convinced it wasn't a phone prank.

The president-elect also dispatched Emanuel last month to meet with two key Republican conservatives who just won House leadership posts, including incoming House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. "Right now," Cantor said, "the problems are so big, the stakes are so high, I don't think they want to be out there alone trying to address these gargantuan issues."