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Waxman vital link for Obama agenda

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the first year or two of President-elect Barack Obama's term, he will work hand in glove with Rep. Henry Waxman to devise a plan limiting carbon emissions that will impact every corner of the economy and U.S. industry.

The new president and the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee also will coordinate to remake America's health care system and provide universal coverage.

One man will be the conduit that makes this landscape-altering relationship tick.

Phil Schiliro, 52, worked for Mr. Waxman, California Democrat, for 25 of the past 26 years, until July, when Mr. Obama hired him to oversee congressional relations for his presidential campaign.

A week ago, Mr. Obama announced that Mr. Schiliro will be head of legislative affairs at the White House, acting as the main liaison between Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mr. Obama is "now hooked up to what will probably be the most powerful committee on the Hill for the next two years," said Brian McNicoll, an aide to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, who has worked with and against Mr. Waxman on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee over the past decade.

"The Obama administration has a direct link" to Mr. Waxman's committee, Mr. McNicoll said. "That is where they want to make their mark, on energy and environmental policy and stuff that goes through that committee."

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that "health care and climate change are going to be two of the toughest, most complex issues that we will have to deal with in the next Congress."

"The fact that Phil knows the Hill so well is certainly going to help."

Both Mr. Waxman and Mr. Schiliro declined to comment for this article, but their close working relationship was clear as far back as 1992, when Mr. Schiliro mounted an unsuccessful run for Congress and Mr. Waxman wrote a fundraising letter saying the race meant "a great deal" to him.

Mr. Obama last week promised that his presidency "will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change," in a nod to environmentalists and liberals frustrated by what they regard as eight years of obstruction by President Bush.

Central to Mr. Obama's goal of reducing emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and an additional 80 percent by 2050 is a cap-and-trade system on carbon-dioxide emissions. The likely trigger for the creation of a cap-and-trade system will be the granting of a waiver to California, allowing that state to impose stricter emissions requirements on automobiles, a bid the Bush administration has denied.

Once Mr. Obama signs an executive order or Congress passes a bill giving California a green light, the Obama administration and Congress likely will take about 18 months to design a cap-and-trade system that will allow businesses that emit carbon dioxide to buy the right to do that from alternative or clean-energy producers, said Brad Johnson of the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund.

Such a system will dramatically affect a wide swath of American industries and corporations, from utilities to banks.

"Utilities say how much a plant will cost, but they don't factor in the coal pricing, and when you do that, the finances of this totally changes," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. McNicoll said Mr. Schiliro's presence in the White House will give Mr. Waxman an "intimate" sense of what should go into climate change legislation and what should not as the Obama administration weighs business interests and the political and economic ramifications of their actions.

Mr. Schiliro also stands as something of a symbol for how Mr. Obama appears set on governing. His rise within Mr. Obama's world in the past several months was widely interpreted as a signal from the president-elect that tipped a power struggle over the Energy and Commerce chairmanship in Mr. Waxman's favor.

One day after Mr. Obama's election, he named Mr. Schiliro to one of 13 positions on the transition senior staff.

If the writing on the wall hadn't been clear enough over the summer, it was obvious at that point: Mr. Schiliro would run the White House office of legislative affairs come January.

The official announcement came Nov. 15, and five days later, Mr. Waxman toppled Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan from the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which the Michigan Democrat had held in every Democrat-controlled Congress since 1981.

Many saw Mr. Schiliro's elevation within the incoming Obama administration as a clear gesture that the president-elect wanted Mr. Waxman in and Mr. Dingell out.

"Waxman is ready and willing to work closely with the Obama administration from Day One," said Mr. Johnson, who wrote about the Waxman coup for one of CAP's blogs, the Wonk Room.

"If Obama orchestrated this, then he did it in a very effective way where it was not done in public and without any fingerprints," Mr. Johnson said.

On the day when Mr. Waxman shoved Mr. Dingell aside, Mr. Obama was catching flak from some in the left-wing blogosphere for his involvement in helping Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, keep his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

The president-elect had made a public gesture of bipartisanship and allowed a political opponent to retain a hold on power while surreptitiously approving the dethronement of a man who stood in the way of his policy goals.