GOP criticizes White House for inviting lobbyists on private conference calls

Congressional Republicans on Thursday blasted the Obama administration for hypocrisy after it held invitation-only teleconferences with lobbyists one day after the president pledged to curb their influence.

The Hill on Thursday morning reported that lobbyists, as well as other stakeholders, were invited by the White House for policy discussions on a range of issues with senior administration officials.

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Democrats defended the administration’s series of conference calls as a necessary tool to gather information from stakeholders — and no different from outreach efforts by past administrations. But Republicans said the move was disingenuous on the morning after President Barack Obama criticized K Street in his State of the Union speech.

The man whom Obama beat for the presidency said it was irrelevant whether or not previous administrations had made similar outreach efforts to lobbyists.

“It may be that every White House does it, but not every candidate for president has pledged stringent rules of behavior that apparently they’re not abiding by,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The White House on Thursday defended the teleconferences and stressed that people asked to participate in the calls included mayors, governors, women’s organizations and faith groups. According to the administration, hundreds of people were on the calls.

Lobbyists told The Hill they received invitations to call in. The calls were deemed off the record by the White House and not open to the press.

“Utterly hypocritical,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “I thought the president’s statement was a bit over the top, but more importantly, his promise to avoid lobbyists and not have them be a part of his administration have just been consistently breached. He’s not acted anything like the purity of his talk.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) smirked when told of the administration's conference calls with lobbyists.

"That's why last night, when he was talking about that very topic, you heard a lot of laughing in the audience," Corker said.

The topics of the separate teleconferences were job creation, economic growth, education, climate change and healthcare reform.

In his State of the Union on Wednesday, Obama said: “We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.  To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve.”

Senate Democrats described the teleconferences as routine exercises to elicit input on legislative priorities.

“It’s totally different to try to garner support for an issue that you’re concerned about, as opposed to having folks with preconceived ideas in your administration,” said Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). “I’m not big on the administration being opposed to lobbyists for all things, but once you decide on an issue, going out and talking to the lobbyists that represent that issue is a very different thing.”

Other Democrats wanted nothing to do with the issue.

“It’s nothing I have an opinion on — they handle their business, they’re a separate branch of government and it’s not up to me to have an opinion about what the White House does,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

House Republicans were surprised by the news that the Obama administration had reached out to K Street so quickly after Wednesday night’s speech.

House Administration Committee ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said the teleconferences were “obviously the first blow for transparency and bipartisanship.”

“Last night was for public consumption, today, obviously is for private consumption,” Lungren said.

Obama’s former colleague in the Illinois State Senate, Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.), also criticized the president.

“It’s just another example where the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality,” Roskam told The Hill.