Lobbyists Recast Their Tools for Democrats

After years of working with a Republican Congress, business lobbying groups are retooling their strategies to work with the new Democratic Congress.

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As Washington prepares for the new reality of Democrats in power in Congress, no one has a bigger task than the business lobbyists downtown. They worked hand-in-glove with Republicans for 12 years. Now they're retooling their strategies.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Here is a quick compare and contrast. First, a membership recruitment video for the National Association of Manufacturers. It was made in 2005. It features the House Speaker at the time, Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): I think there is a great future in American manufacturing, but we have to work together to bring down the cost of taxation, the cost of litigation and the cost to regulation.

OVERBY: In other words, the straight line Republican business agenda. Now, Jay Timmons, the association's chief of government relations, staking out their position last week.

Mr. JAY TIMMONS (National Association of Manufacturers): We advocate on behalf of manufacturers and most importantly the employees and their families.

OVERBY: Constituencies that clearly appeal to Democrats. Like every other business advocate in Washington, Timmons is adjusting to the prevailing political reality. He says the manufacturers' association is add new legislative priority, fixing America's transportation networks.

Mr. TIMMONS: Now, America's infrastructure is crumbling. And I think that that issue really cuts across all party lines.

OVERBY: It puts the NAM in sync with the Democrats for rebuilding the transportation system but against congressional earmarks that have committed billions of dollars to pet projects.

Mr. TIMMONS: It's really fix problems instead of creating highways that might be named after somebody who happened who happen to get funding for them.

OVERBY: At the National Association of Broadcasters, the president is David Rehr. He's been a hot commodity in the lobbying world with solid ties with House GOP leaders. Rehr doesn't try to hide his background. When we talked, I asked him how he'll approach the new Democrats in Congress. He said he always tries to meet every new lawmaker, but also that he carefully matches the NAB lobbyists to individual members of Congress. He says he and the lobbyist go visit the lawmaker and talk issues.

Mr. DAVID REHR (National Association of Broadcasters): And then I say the following at the end. Congressman Overby, any time you need me, here's my cell number, here's my e-mail address, here's my phone number. But in your office, Lorie Knight, who works with me is going to be your contact. So Lorie is as good or better than seeing me.

OVERBY: Knight is a former Democratic Hill staffer, as Rehr will be sure to remind the lawmaker.

Mr. REHR: And then effectively, we've moved away from David Rehr, the president of the NAB, whatever his personal partisan perspective is, to this is the person.

OVERBY: But the Democrats have some adjusting to do as well. Democratic Lobbyist Vic Fazio, a former Congressman himself, puts it this way.

Mr. VIC FAZIO (Democratic Lobbyist): To hold on to the majority in the future, Democrats have got to adopt some proposals that may not on the surface seem like traditional Democratic issues, but which they want to make a record on.

OVERBY: Because that record presumably would help them win again in 2008. Andrew Laperriere is an analyst for the ISI Group providing Washington intelligence to Wall Street firms. He expects to see Democratic pragmatism.

Mr. ANDREW LAPERRIERE (ISI Group): They're not going to take on an industry on issues where they're taking the unpopular side, but they are going to take on business on issues in which the public generally supports what the Democrats are trying to do.

OVERBY: Such issues as raising the minimum wage and facing down the drug makers on Medicare prescription prices. But on other issues, business lobbyist and Democrats will probably find some common ground.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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