Democratic lawmakers: White House staff shakeup long overdue

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Democratic lawmakers say staff changes at the White House are long overdue after the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act put them at risk of losing Senate control. 

A chief criticism among Senate Democrats is that President Obama and senior officials have not done enough to reach out and communicate with allies on the Hill.

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The paralyzing technical glitches of HealthCare.gov, the federal portal for the new health insurance exchanges, caught lawmakers by surprise and left them scrambling in response to angry constituents.    

Even before the debacle of the healthcare rollout, Democratic senators felt Obama did not call them enough and sometimes had a tenuous grasp of political realities in Congress.

The president nearly suffered a humiliating defeat on the use-of-force resolution he asked the Senate to pass in September before Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly brokered a deal to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapon’s stockpile. The president appeared out of step with the Senate Democratic caucus during the episode.

“It was long overdue,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said of recent staff changes at the White House.

Rockefeller said that Democratic senators did not explicitly call for staff changes during a heated meeting with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, but made it clear they wanted him to shake things up.

“We said everything but that,” he said.

Obama has made three key moves to beef up his team in recent days.

He recruited former White House chief of staff John Podesta, who served in the Clinton administration, to work on energy and climate issues; he brought back Phil Schiliro, his former legislative director, to coordinate the implementation of the Affordable Care Act; and he tapped Katie Beirne Fallon to replace Miguel Rodriguez as director of legislative affairs. 

All three have strong connections to Capitol Hill. Schiliro is a former senior aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the architects of the healthcare law, and Beirne Fallon, recently served as a senior aide to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was elated to hear Obama had brought on an old hand with “political savvy” from the Clinton administration.

"When I was told this was going to happen by the president's chief of staff, he could probably hear me yell over the phone. In fact, I know he did. John Podesta is going to bring some political savvy to the White House, and I think that's so important,” Reid told Bloomberg Television in an interview Friday.

The Democratic leader praised the promotion of Beirne Fallon as a move that would also improve political judgment at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“She was head of the [Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center]. She's just wonderful. Podesta and Katie Beirne, that's going to help so much in getting good political judgment in the White House," he said.

Obama’s job approval rating has slid to near historic lows in the past year and many Democrats worry he could hurt them in next year’s midterm election. 

Rodriguez, whom Beirne Fallon replaces, had relatively little experience on Capitol Hill. He worked in the Senate office of Hillary Rodham Clinton but was little known on the Hill. National Journal reported in July that members of the Democratic leadership privately admitted they didn’t know him. 

“He was put in an impossible situation as someone without much Hill experience as head of legislative affairs,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “That’s a poor management decision that wasn’t Miguel’s fault.”

Schumer on Friday said Beirne Fallon, his former aide, has strong ties to every member of the Senate Democratic caucus.

“There’s no one better than Katie Beirne,” he said. “She can bring people together. She’s a great listener. She will convey the president’s views strongly but in a friendly, nice way.”

Senior lawmakers hope that means they’ll get more personal attention from the White House.

“I think the president in terms of domestic issues very much needs the Congress and the degree to which he can become closer and more personal with members, the better,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Feinstein said the White House staff changes were intended to improve relations with Capitol Hill.

“That’s obviously part of the point,” she said. “These are people that are known to members. It gives members to have the opportunity to have somebody that they know who’s going to be friendly to call, who will return calls.

“That is extraordinarily important,” she said.

Lou D’Allesandro, the deputy Democratic leader of the New Hampshire state Senate, warned last month that Obama could become a lame duck by January.

But Democrats in Washington think the president can still reverse his political decline, especially with a strong team around him.

“Eventually he made the right decision that he should have made before but that doesn’t matter. He’s made it, he’s got time, he’s not running, the economy is trending a little bit upwards,” said Rockefeller.

The senior Democratic aide said close coordination with the White House will be crucial to keeping the Senate majority.

“Next year we’re going to have to work very closely together and this is the best team,” the aide said.