By Molly Hooper - 12/19/12 10:00 AM EST
John Boehner’s point man in negotiations with the White House to avoid fiscal calamity is the right man at the right time, according to lawmakers and aides.
Mike Sommers, Speaker Boehner’s (R-Ohio) chief of staff, is a key player in the highly charged talks between Boehner and President Obama, as they try to reach a deal to prevent the nation from going over the so-called fiscal cliff at year’s end, a grim scenario where taxes spike on most Americans and automatic spending cuts take effect.
In 2008, as policy director for then-Minority Leader Boehner, Sommers was in the thick of tense talks between a GOP-controlled White House and a Democratic-controlled Congress over a plan to bail out the nation’s financial institutions following Wall Street’s meltdown.
He even played then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s “staffer” for the day, after McCain called for a high-profile summit at the White House, which included former President George W. Bush, Obama, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the four highest-ranking Democratic and GOP congressional leaders.
Now the affable 37-year old is performing a similar role with fewer principals — Obama, Boehner, White House legislative affairs director Rob Nabors and himself.
In 2011, Boehner and the White House had several high-profile showdowns, most notably on raising the nation’s debt ceiling. During those stressful talks, Barry Jackson was the lead GOP staff negotiator. Now that Sommers has replaced Jackson, his fingerprints will be on whatever deal is struck with Obama.
Sommers talks to Nabors, his White House counterpart, on a “daily basis,” a source familiar with the situation said. The two young, powerful staffers have known each other for nearly a decade, since Nabors took over as clerk for Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, at the time the top-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Despite their “pleasant” feelings for one another personally, the four men representing the two sides have reservations on a number of issues and are “kind of at a stalemate now,” the source told The Hill.
Still, colleagues — staff and lawmakers alike — say Sommers has the right skill set to facilitate a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff in early January.
People who have worked with Sommers, who has been with Boehner for 16 years, say he excels at monitoring an unruly House Republican Conference, strategizing with key GOP leaders and committee heads and negotiating with a Democratic administration.
Sommers started working with Boehner fresh out of Miami University of Ohio and, with the exception of a yearlong stint at the White House, has held key positions in Boehner’s congressional offices since 1997.
But it’s the time he spent working in Boehner’s leadership shop, starting in 2006, that prepared him for the role he must play today, a source close to Sommers said.
“[Sommers] knows all the members very well,” the source said. “They are guys that he’s been dealing with since 2006,” when House Republicans had just been reduced to minority status and had to rebuild their brand.
When Boehner became Speaker in 2011, Sommers was promoted to deputy chief of staff, serving as a “chief organizational officer,” the source said, “running the operation on a daily basis,” dealing with all members of the conference.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Sommers has a “good rapport” with GOP lawmakers “in terms of being a good listener and being a fair arbiter in trying to present information.”
Nunes described Sommers as “cool and level-headed … he’s not someone who tries to push his agenda. He’s trying to take care of the members and the Speaker.”
As important an asset is that Sommers has a policy background — a very helpful attribute given the technical, high-stakes discussions over tax policy and spending cuts.
Iowa Rep. Tom Latham (R) told The Hill that Sommers has been very good about facilitating a team approach in negotiating the terms of a deal with the White House.
“Any offers, counteroffers — it’s truly a team effort on our side of leadership and committee staff, so [Sommers] is not going to made an offer that hasn’t been vetted by everybody,” Latham said, adding that Sommers “knows what Boehner’s thinking” and is “trusted” by the conference.
A House Democratic leadership aide told The Hill that Democrats have not had a lot of experience negotiating with Sommers on legislation — given the nature of the Boehner policy shop — but that Sommers is very “approachable” on matters concerning the “institution.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) chief of staff, Steve Stombres, who is in contact “hourly” with Sommers, was effusive with his praise.
“Mike has the Speaker’s ear, and is trusted by the leadership team, members of our conference and even across the aisle. He is not only a respected colleague but also a good friend,” Stombres told The Hill.
Relations between the two offices improved greatly with Sommers’s promotion to his current role in June.
A source told The Hill earlier this summer that “there’s been a constructive outreach by both camps. I give Mike Sommers and Steve [Stombres] credit, because while there may have been people in each camp that weren’t inclined to let stuff go, I think that they worked constructively during the [recent staff] transition period and I think the lines of communication are open.”
Sommers, who grew up in Pennsylvania, is married and has three children. His wife, Jill, is a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Sommers declined to be interviewed for this article.