President Obama is not content to consolidate his legislative gains of the last two years and play defense now that Republicans rule the House, insists his new point man for Capitol Hill.
Rob Nabors, in his first interview since being named White House director of legislative affairs in January, said that the president is determined to push an ambitious agenda through Congress this year, including long-delayed immigration reform.
Nabors challenged the conventional wisdom that after enacting overhauls of health care and financial regulation, the White House would devote the next two years less to legislating than to implementing those measures. “I don’t know if I would agree with that necessarily,” he said in his West Wing office. “We continue to have a pretty important set of legislative priorities that we would want Congress to start thinking about.”
Among those priorities, Nabors cited passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, immigration reform, and energy legislation. He stressed that getting a budget passed “is a big deal.”
He did acknowledge that last year’s time-consuming health care overhaul stalled parts of Obama’s agenda. “Health care did absorb a lot of oxygen for a long time,” Nabors said. “But we will have an active legislative agenda going forward.”
He conceded that the GOP takeover of the House injected what he called “complexity” into his job. Now, he said, “there is a component of protection of what we accomplished over the first two years, which people are attempting to revisit.” Nabors said he learned an important lesson in watching Republicans assaulting the administration’s priorities with amendments to the continuing resolution on the budget.
“It became clear that we just can’t bank those accomplishments—with efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and efforts to repeal various EPA rules and regulations,” he said. Additionally, his office will be watching for amendments slipped into bills to defund administration programs. “It’s definitely interesting,” he joked.
Monitoring appropriations is something the soft-spoken, 40-year-old Notre Dame graduate is well trained to do. He was chief of staff for the House Appropriations Committee from 2001 until he joined the Obama team as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2009. He left OMB for a stint as a senior adviser to then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel before returning to the budget office. It was also at OMB that he got his first government post, during the Clinton administration.
“I’m not coming in blind,” he said, noting he has dealt with a range of issues, particularly at Appropriations. “I think I have a pretty broad base of knowledge about the issues that are in play now.”
His experience on the committee staff prepares him well for the reality of Republican-control of the House, Nabors said, boasting that Appropriations is one of the few committees that historically operates in a “bipartisan, bicameral” way. From that experience he gained a high regard for current Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and many of his key staffers, including Chief of Staff Barry Jackson. “I have a great deal of respect for them. They are all professional.”
He contended that he has been encouraged by what he has heard from Republicans. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We really don’t have time or the inclination for petty squabbling,” he said, adding that the 2010 elections “sent a pretty clear signal that we need to figure out how to make this place work. So I just approach it that way, and I think most of the conversations that I’ve had with Speaker Boehner’s staff have very strongly suggested that they are approaching things the same way.”
Boehner’s office did not dispute Nabors’s characterization of their relationship. But spokesman Brendan Buck was less than effusive, stating carefully that Jackson and other Boehner aides “are confident we’ll be able to work productively and professionally” with the new White House legislative director.
The office that Nabors now heads historically reflects the personality of its director. Some of his predecessors have been insiders; others were newcomers to Washington. Some have viewed themselves as bearers of congressional gripes to the Oval Office; others saw their role as merely taking the president’s wishes to the Hill. Perhaps no key post in the White House is shaped more by its occupant than this one.
Nabors wants to combine many approaches. “We’re a little bit of a complaint service and a little bit of a travel guide for Congress,” he said.
He believes that shielding his boss from congressional complaints hurts the president in the end. “My job is to make sure that the president’s agenda gets done. The only way you can really do that is to understand what the Congress feels and how they respond and the things they react to,” he said, promising to factor what he hears on Capitol Hill into planning White House strategy.
“Congress,” Nabors said, “has a unique perspective on things and a way of approaching issues that may be different from the way [the White House] would naturally want to do things.”
This leads to the “travel guide” function of his office. “It’s hard to understand how outcomes and results pop out of Congress,” he said. “So understanding the way that the institution actually works and being able to show people here how the institution works is helpful.”
The key to success, however, is whether the president and his legislative director are in sync. So far, Nabors is pleased with Obama’s willingness “to do whatever we have asked him to do, whether it be phone calls or meetings or even just providing us guidance or advice as to the best way to get things done.” He added, “It hasn’t been uncommon for me to go down and say, ‘I need 10 minutes.’ And he has always been willing to make that time for me.”
Nabors names Phil Schiliro, his predecessor, as an important ally. Schiliro remains at the White House as a senior adviser, and Nabors calls him a mentor. And although Nabors is not as press-shy as Schiliro, he hopes to copy his low-key style.
“I very much respect his approach, trying to maintain an even-keel perspective on both what is going on on the Hill and what’s going on here,” he said, “and trying to step back and not allow yourself to get caught up in the particular moment and trying to keep your eyes on the prize.”
“You can’t throw yourself off a cliff just because there’s a bad vote. And you can’t get too excited because things went your way today, because you’ve got to go again tomorrow.”
Schiliro praised his successor as “an ideal choice,” saying that the most important thing he brings to the job is, “he understands the substance of issues and he understands how to get things done.”
Nabors hopes to retain Schiliro’s deputies. “I’m not planning a staff shake-up,” he said. But he added, “It wouldn’t surprise me if there are moves, mainly because it is very unusual for the staff of legislative affairs to stay around as long as these folks have—especially given the tremendous burden they had for the first two years. They have accomplished a lot. They are really tired.”
“But,” Nabors emphasized, “I would love to keep them all as long as they are willing to stay.”
This article appears in the March 28, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.