Obama Plugs Staff Into Hill Health Care Debate

07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

One of the key measures the Obama White House has employed in crafting a comprehensive health care reform package is to ensure that the avenues of communication between the administration and Congress are continuously open. It is a means of avoiding the fate of the last reform effort -- former President Bill Clinton's attempt in the early nineties.

But the political calculus doesn't end there.

In Matt Bai's forthcoming comprehensive look at the process in the New York Times Magazine, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel acknowledges that some of the key staffing decisions have been geared toward greasing the legislative wheels.

"That was a strategy,'' Emanuel tells Bai. "We didn't kind of parallel-park into it. We had a deep bench of people with a lot of relationships that run into both the House and Senate extensively. And so we wanted to use that to our maximum advantage."


Among the White House staffers who have played key roles monitoring and guiding health care reform to this point include Jim Messina, who served as Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus's chief of staff and now as Deputy chief of staff in the White House; Phil Schiliro, Obama's legislative director and formerly a long-serving confident of Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman; Pete Rouse, a high-ranking Obama adviser with considerable clout on the Hill; Lisa Konwinski, Schiliro's deputy, who formerly worked with Senate Budget Committee chairman, Kent Conrad; and Melody Barnes, the domestic policy director, who was a trusted aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The aides, according to Bai, do more than keep tabs on legislative landscape of the moment. They also serve as the eyes and ears for the White House. Even the president has played an active role in engaging the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Through mid-May, according to Bai, the Obama administration had welcomed 320 members of Congress and roughly 80 senators through its doors, for both formal and informal gatherings.

"We have a tracking system," Emanuel told Bai. "Who came to watch the football game? Who came to watch the basketball game?"

On a broader level, Bai makes the point that this strategy is very much the type of politics that has defined Obama: Inclusive, collaborative but with long-term objectives in mind. The goal, as David Axelrod told Bai, is to avoid the type of situation that took place with Clinton, when the legislation was "chiseled in stone" and "not well received."

But part of the strategy is driven by the fact that -- because he was only in the Senate a few years before running for the White House -- Obama faces a deficit in terms of congressional relations. As Bai quotes Sen. Baucus, "[Obama] didn't really serve in the Senate."

The Montana Democrat, whom Obama barely knew during their overlap in Congress, has since been to the White House twice for personal meetings. At one, he sat next to Michele Obama and discussed Sidwell Friends, the school attended by the Obama children and from which Baucus' own son graduated.

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