Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama Team Exercises Hill Power

“It was just another day of doing business in Washington. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), discussed some long-delayed bridges in Hill’s district and agreed to travel to Kentucky to meet with local officials about the span over the Ohio River. Except that when Hill and LaHood met a few weeks ago, there was nary a staffer, necktie or notepad in sight. Hill took the opportunity to corner LaHood after the two worked out on treadmills in the House gym. ‘The one thing I can do is fill potholes,’ joked LaHood, who is back in his old Rayburn stomping grounds three mornings a week for anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes on the treadmill. ‘So some of the guys talk to me about projects in their districts. If they didn’t, I’d wonder about them.’For all the attention paid to see-and-be-seen lunch and dinner spots, there is perhaps no more intimate place in the capital (and the Capitol) where work and play mix among the powerful than behind the locked, unmarked and utterly unremarkable doors of SB-322 in the Rayburn House Office Building sub-basement. The House gym — or Members’ Wellness Center, as the on-duty attendant calls it upon picking up the phone — offers a sanctuary for any current or former member of that chamber to escape staffers, constituents and reporters. But the gym, along with its Senate counterpart across the Capitol, has offered something else in the Obama era: a target of opportunity. As past members of the House, LaHood and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel exercise their gym privileges a few times each week. And as a former senator, Vice President Joe Biden occasionally returns to work out with his old colleagues in the Russell Senate Office Building. In doing so, they are able to pick up valuable intelligence and discuss legislation in an informal setting that lends itself to easy dialogue. ’People are more frank when they’re wearing their gym clothes,’ said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for years a House gym regular who finally, 10 years after being elected to the Senate, made the switch to the facility in his own chamber. For members, the access to such top officials is just as invaluable — giving them a chance to emphasize, in person, the importance of issues that may determine their electoral fate.”

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