- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

Outgoing Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for transportation secretary, will face several daunting challenges if Congress approves his nomination, including a shortage of air traffic controllers, crumbling highway infrastructure and a fluctuating petroleum market.

But those that know the retiring seven-term Republican lawmaker from central Illinois say his reputation as a bipartisan consensus builder makes him a wise choice to lead a complex department that includes more than a dozen divisions and an almost $60 billion budget.

“It’s pretty clear to me that LaHood was picked in large measure because he is a man that has the capacity to deal on civil and productive terms with members of both parties,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton adviser.

“The business of transportation policy and transportation funding over the next few years, which will not be a trivial matter, is going to require consultation and negotiation.”

Mr. Obama has said he chose Mr. LaHood because he was “the best person for the job regardless of party.”

“Ray’s appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit, a spirit we need to reclaim in this country to make progress for the American people,” the Democratic president-elect said at a Chicago news conference on Dec. 19 before he introduced Mr. LaHood as a Cabinet nominee.

Mr. LaHood touted his ability to reach across jurisdictional lines to get things done.

“I understand it is the local folks who know best their transportation needs,” he said at the news conference. “We’ll bring that same approach to the Department of Transportation.”

Mr. LaHood, 63, was the second Republican Mr. Obama has picked to serve in his Cabinet. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who Mr. Obama asked to stay on in that role.

Mr. LaHood was first elected to the House during the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, when the party wrested control of the chamber from Democrats for the first time in four decades.

But unlike many House Republicans in the mid-1990s, he didn’t fall lock-step behind Speaker Newt Gingrich, instead quickly establishing himself as a moderate who wasn’t afraid to buck party wishes.

Mr. LaHood was among a handful of Republican House candidates in 1994 not to sign the Contract With America, a Gingrich-inspired manifesto that detailed the actions Republicans promised to take if they became the majority party.

His independent leanings haven’t always ingratiated him with conservatives. The anti-earmark Club for Growth slapped a low 36 percent rating on Mr. LaHood on its 2007 congressional scorecard. And the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste gave Mr. LaHood an 11 percent rating in 2007 and a lifetime score of 49 percent.

Mr. LaHood’s nomination helped fulfill a campaign promise by Mr. Obama to reach out to Republicans if elected. But the selection raised some eyebrows among critics who complained Mr. LaHood lacks the experience to lead Transportation.

Mr. LaHood served six years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but he never chaired the body. His only committee assignment the past legislative session was on the Appropriations Committee.

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