While Obama’s Away, The Republicans Will Play (With Lobbyists)

April 22, 2010 1:37 pm

President Obama was in New York City at noon today, calling on the financial industry to join with politicians in Washington trying to pass banking reform. Meanwhile, back in D.C., a group of Republican Senators was having their own discussions with business types — but the kind of cooperation they were looking for was somewhat different.

Obama’s speech was broadcast live on TV. The Republican meeting, held at the headquarters of the NRSC, was not as open to the press. In fact, an NRSC spokesperson said he didn’t know it existed until I emailed him while I was standing outside the building watching a steady stream of Senators and well-heeled guests file in and out. The guests weren’t talking either — they hurried past, refusing to answer a single question about who they were or what they were doing there.

What was the big secret? A fundraiser for Florida Sen. George LeMieux’s (R) “Protect America’s Future” PAC featuring big name GOP Senators and lobbyists. Why the tight-lipped hustle past three reporters standing out front? Maybe the Republicans were concerned about how it looked. Or maybe they just wanted to get to the buffet.There’s nothing new about politicians in Washington having closed-press meetings with lobbyists. There’s not anything new about politicians fundraising at those meetings. But this event came at the exact moment Obama was taking on one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies — the financial industry — on its home turf.

The Republicans, it seems, had a better use for the lunch hour than biting the hand of the financial industry that has fed both parties for years. So while Obama took on lobbyists, the GOP fed them.

No one at the NRSC event was interested in discussing the irony. LeMieux and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) — the chair of the NRSC — avoided the three reporters ready to greet them outside headquarters by entering the building through its underground garage. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, scheduled to appear, was nowhere to be seen. The same goes for Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), whose names also appear on an official invitation for the event posted online by the Sunlight Foundation.

Only North Carolina Senator Richard Burr (R) chose to use the front door to enter the event. And he wasn’t particularly interested in chatting.

“George LeMieux fundraiser,” was all Burr would say when I asked him who was inside as he beelined to a waiting car after he left the event.

Several guests refused to answer questions from other reporters, real toughies like “who are you?” and “what are you doing here?”

The invitation to the event listed several lobbyists, including Wendy Grubbs of CitiGroup and former Bush administration official-turned lobbyists Kirsten Chadwick. The reporters outside couldn’t determine if either actually showed up to the event, but at least one lobbyist was definitely there. Former McCain 2008 senior adviser Charlie Black, who used to work for a firm that lobbied on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, was also there.

Black didn’t say anything on the way in either, though one reporter did buttonhole him on his way out.

All in all, the crowd was just not a very outgoing bunch.

As for the NRSC, they claimed to have no idea what was going on. Spokesperson Brian Walsh told me at first that he “wasn’t aware” of a fundraiser in his building when I asked him about it.

Later, when I was standing outside, Walsh confirmed the fundraising event (he said he wasn’t aware of it because he was at lunch when it was happening) but added that he wasn’t the man to ask about it anyway.

“Believe there is something for Senator LeMieux,” he emailed. “Its not our event though – we just provide the space – so would have to refer questions on attendees etc to his office.”

LeMieux’s office didn’t return my call requesting a guest list. Seems his staff weren’t feeling very chatty either.

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