By Alexander Bolton - 01/12/12 10:00 AM EST
Congressional Democrats expect Jack Lew to play a central role in contentious negotiations with Republicans on taxes and spending this year, a significant departure from outgoing White House Chief of Staff William Daley.
Capitol Hill sources predict that Lew, who is leaving his post as budget director to become President Obama’s chief of staff, will be more like Rahm Emanuel, minus the four-letter words. Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, served as Obama’s first chief of staff and was a major player in the negotiations on high-profile legislation in both 2009 and 2010.
For example, Lew and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) have fought together in the Democratic trenches for years.
The Lew-Reid relationship did hit a rough patch in July, however. Reid at that time confronted Lew during a Senate Democratic caucus meeting about being kept in the dark on deficit-reduction talks between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I’m the Senate majority leader — why don’t I know about this deal?” Reid demanded of Lew after learning from a media report that the president was close to a deal that would have cut entitlement programs.
But the dust-up didn’t cause any long-term damage. On Monday, Reid heartily praised Lew’s promotion while offering thanks to Daley that was subdued by comparison.
Lew was the Obama administration’s point person during the three biggest standoffs over 2011: the government shutdown scare in April; the debt-limit impasse in July; and the payroll tax battle of December. Lew was regularly seen on Capitol Hill; Daley was not.
Democratic leaders expect Lew to be fully engaged in the talks to extend the payroll tax holiday for a full year and the bigger fight over extending the Bush tax rates, which expire in December.
“Lew will stay involved, but more at the 30,000-foot level,” said a senior Democratic aide who speculated that Lew’s successor at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Rob Nabors, the administration’s director of legislative affairs, would handle most day-to-day talks with Republican negotiators.
“With [Lew’s] new role, he’ll have a lot of other stuff on his plate,” said the Democratic aide.
Congressional Democrats have not been shy in ripping Obama for his lack of communication on various issues. Yet Democratic aides and lawmakers have gone out of their way to praise Lew and Nabors. They have not been as kind to Daley.
Daley rubbed some on the left the wrong way, especially with his effort to woo industry groups ahead of Obama’s reelection bid. After being stripped of some day-to-day duties in November, Daley offered his resignation. Obama, who reportedly urged Daley to reconsider, announced the switch from Daley to Lew on Monday.
Democratic lawmakers criticized Daley for being disengaged, claiming that hurt their leverage in negotiations with Republicans. Lew will not let that happen, they say.
In this sense, congressional Democrats see Lew as more akin to Emanuel, who kept in close touch with congressional leaders during the effort to pass landmark healthcare and Wall Street reform legislation.
But those who know Lew and Emanuel say that while they are both direct negotiators, their temperaments are nearly polar opposites.
“They couldn’t be more different in terms of personality. Lew is very even-keeled and very much like ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ ” said a Democratic aide. “It’s very hard to imagine Lew throwing a stapler at someone or cursing.”
“Lew is low-key and totally straightforward. There’s no screaming and yelling,” said Steve Elmendorf, a prominent Democratic lobbyist who got to work with Lew often during the Clinton administration as a senior adviser to former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). “Rahm is also ‘what you see is what you get,’ but it’s at a higher decibel level.”
Democrats who have worked with him through the years say that Lew has learned a lot during his time in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
“I don’t think he started out as a good negotiator, but now he’s top-drawer. For one thing, he has incredible grasp of substance,” said Scott Lilly, a former senior Democratic House aide who has known Lew for decades.
Lew’s encyclopedic knowledge of the federal government, accumulated during two stints as OMB chief, gives him an advantage in negotiations, sources note.
Democratic sources say Lew has built strong ties to Reid and won points on appropriations matters with senior Democratic lawmakers, such as Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Barbara Mikulski (Md.).
Reid and Lew worked in tandem on the agreement with Republicans to extend government funding for the rest of fiscal 2011, a negotiation that threatened to shut the government down in April.
“Reid wanted the White House to be in the room. That was Jack and Rob,” a Democratic aide said of Lew and Nabors. “They worked real closely with Reid in negotiating that deal.”
Lew began his career in Washington as an aide to former Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) and spent his formative professional years as a policy adviser to ex-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.).
He went on to serve as deputy director of the White House budget office from 1995 to 1998 before taking over as director of the agency from 1998 through 2000.
Republicans did not balk at Lew’s nomination, and the Senate confirmed Lew via voice vote in November 2010. Previously in the Obama administration, he served as a lieutenant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Elmendorf said understanding Capitol Hill is a crucial element of heading the White House budget office and that it would serve Lew well as White House chief of staff.
“The OMB is a very Hill-intensive job,” he said.
Lew’s hands-on style at OMB stood in contrast to his predecessor, Peter Orszag, who never felt fully comfortable dealing with lawmakers outside the Democratic leadership, according to one aide.
That could make Nabors a strong candidate to take over as director of the budget office, considering he has already served as the agency’s deputy director and has extensive experience working with lawmakers.
Nabors formerly served as the staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.