No pit bull for Chairman Thomas

Anyone watching Bill Thomas wield the gavel at the House Ways and Means Committee knows that the California Republican needs no help enforcing his will. But had the chairman ever needed extra muscle, his former senior adviser Shahira Knight had a plan: Bosley.

Knight jokingly offered to sit Bosley — not the “Charlie’s Angels” character, but her 90-pound pit bull — next to Thomas during difficult committee meetings to keep unruly members in line, “but he never needed that,” she said.

Last month, Knight departed Ways and Means to become a partner at the C2 Group, having been Thomas’s most senior counselor since February 2004, four years after she first arrived at the committee.

The easy rapport between the imperious chairman and his affable right-hand woman was cemented by three years of work on three politically arduous bills: the tax-cut packages of 2001 and 2002 and the Medicare drug benefit of 2003.

“I’m not a partisan Republican at all,” said Knight, 35, looking out at the Capitol from her the picture window of her new office. “I’ve always had good relationships with my Democratic counterparts.”

Still, Knight’s final two years on the job challenged her to leave her policy-wonk roots behind, becoming “more political and more strategic,” she said. “One of Chairman Thomas’s greatest gifts [to her] was learning how to put something through the process. You can have the greatest ideas in the world and not get them through because the legislative process is inherently political.”

The C2 Group is a relative newcomer on the lobbying scene, opening in 2001 under founders Tom Crawford and John Cline, but the bipartisan shop beat out several other firms competing for Knight’s services by emphasizing good chemistry.

“They’ve lobbied me for five years,” Knight said, referring to her time at Ways and Means. “They always really impressed me from the staff side, always came in knowing their issues.”

In addition to the allure of its hands-on approach to lobbying, C2 offers Knight a growing array of corporate clients with a stake in nearly every bill on the congressional agenda. The firm recently signed the South Florida transportation authority, which is seeking a federal boost for its proposed new passenger train, and continues to represent MetLife, PepsiCo, Fannie Mae and Wachovia, among other companies.

Knight made her big move just weeks before Thomas made one of his own, announcing that he would not seek a 15th term in the House amid signs that GOP leaders would not grant him an exemption from committee-chairman term limits. Despite a routine of working side by side past 1 a.m., Knight said she and Thomas did not discuss his plans before he publicly divulged them.

Hearing her boss’s heartfelt retirement speech, in which Thomas compared himself to baseball legend Sandy Koufax, “it was sort of how I felt” about leaving, Knight said. “I accomplished so much and had a lot of fun being there, but I felt pretty fulfilled.”

Thomas struck another rare emotional note in his statement naming chief economist Alex Brill as Knight’s replacement: “Shahira’s service to the Ways and Means Committee has been essential. She will be missed, and I wish her the best,” Thomas said. “Her insight and analysis were key as the committee moved major legislation to the president’s desk.”

Knight has relished her less rare moments of downtime since arriving at C2, but she will keep busy this spring during her one-year ban on lobbying former colleagues thanks to two simultaneous conference committees. The outcome of the conferences on last year’s massive tax-cutting reconciliation bill and an equally complex pension overhaul remain uncertain, making Knight’s knowledge of the Senate useful to C2’s clients.

“Thomas always used to talk about conference as looking for the ‘coalition of the willing,’” Knight said. “It’s about finding people who want to get the bill done, who want to be productive players in the process.”

Enlisting Senate Democrats in a conference-report coalition is arguably the hardest task of all for Thomas, who is a dual conferee on the bills. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, is threatening to file a budget point of order against any tax-reconciliation conference report that contains a two-year extension of reductions in capital-gains and dividend rates.

“Nobody knows those bills better than I do,” Knight said. “I can’t lobby Ways and Means about the bills, but I can work with the Senate, at least help figure out what the compromises and issues will be.”

Jon Traub, who met Knight in 1999 when she was new at Ways and Means’ Social Security Subcommittee and he was legislative director to Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), said, “There are three things she has over almost everyone else: She is extremely smart, extremely nice and has great political savvy. She’s got the whole package.” Traub now lobbies for the Securities Industry Association, and McCrery now heads the Social Security panel.

Knight began her career not yet aware of her political talents, graduating with an economics degree from the University of Virginia in the thick of the 1992 recession and entering a banking management program. Soon she realized that a branch manager’s job was too sales-oriented for her taste.

“I was so grateful to have a job, but it wasn’t me,” Knight said. She left the banking world to get a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University, where her professors encouraged her to try her hand at a policy job on the Hill.

Heeding their advice, Knight landed at the Joint Economic Committee, where the chairman, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), called on his aides to act as a “think tank for Congress,” as Knight put it.

In the end, it was a paper from graduate school and not Knight’s renaissance-woman expertise from the committee that helped her win her next job, at the economics department of PricewaterhouseCoopers. But she soon found herself back at the Capitol when President Clinton tried to open his own national dialogue on the unsustainable growth of Social Security spending.

Knight emigrated to America from Egypt at age 4, which has given her a uniquely appreciative perspective on the often-frustrating experience of government service. Her parents were veterans of the Arab League of Nations and the World Bank, and she grew up learning Arabic.

“We were as American as the family next door,” Knight said, “but there really is more of a patriotic streak.” Describing her commute into the District of Columbia, driving around the Jefferson Memorial and taking in the Tidal Basin, “I can never get enough of it,” she added.

Knight ended up getting her fill of the Social Security debate, however, which she said hasn’t changed a bit since she arrived at the Social Security Subcommittee under then-Chairman Clay Shaw (R-Fla.).

After seeing one Ways and Means chairman, former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), stumble while trying to navigate the partisan obstacle course to slow Social Security growth, Knight admitted she was skeptical about starting the process again early last year with Thomas. Sure enough, the House Republican bill carving out personal investment accounts from the Social Security surplus never made it to a markup in Ways and Means.

“I started out working on what I left working on. It was like ‘Groundhog Day,’” Knight said, invoking the Bill Murray comedy about living the same 24 hours over and over again.