WASHINGTON – New Democratic lawmakers aren't the only ones measuring for drapes and unsealing boxes.
In a job swapping cycle unseen for some time, Democratic congressional aides and former members are leaping to lucrative lobbying posts, Democratic lobbyists are grabbing for influential jobs in Congress and advocacy groups are waging bidding wars for the best talent around.
Call it a six-year itch.
Washington's $2.3 billion lobbying industry is undergoing one of its periodic adjustments to shifts in government power — the first since the White House changed hands in 2001.
Accustomed to dealing with Republicans and at times discouraged by Republican lawmakers from hiring Democrats, lobbying firms and business groups are now filling their ranks with policy experts and lobbyists more closely aligned with the new leadership on Capitol Hill.
"Nobody on our side is telling them fire the Republicans, but they certainly understand they need to have a bipartisan team if they want to get anything done," said Steve Elmendorf, a top adviser to former Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who took up lobbying with Bryan Cave Strategies last year and opened his own shop after the election.
The changes under way can be felt all the way to the top of influential organizations. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers last month named former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma as the trade group's new president. McCurdy, who left Congress in 1994 to mount an unsuccessful run for Senate, will replace Fred Webber, a former official in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Some lobbying firms already have a head start. For example, the Federalist Group, a Republican firm, hired former Louisiana Democratic Rep. Chris John last March and is now adding more Democrats to the firm in hopes of expanding its $14.6 million a year lobbying business.
"The firms that will be in trouble are the ones that stayed the course — you can use those three words, 'stayed the course' — and were blinded by what was happening in the Congress," said John, one of the leaders of the moderate to conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House. "Those are the ones that are going to be hurt."
The Federalist Group, a subsidiary of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, will now become Ogilvy Government Relations, shedding a name that had become synonymous with Republican lobbying. John also recently hired Moses Mercado, deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
Some lobbyists concede that after years of seeking to influence Republicans, those lobbying firms and trade groups predominantly made up of Republicans will have to work harder to be heard.
"Memories in this town are very long," said Paul Miller, a lobbyist and the outgoing president of the American League of Lobbyists. "Unless their relationship is very good with those Democratic members, you still may have a tough time. But you would have an easier time if you would have hired a Democrat."
Still, the reality in Washington is that neither side holds the upper hand. A Republican president still has the White House and the 51-49 Democratic margin in the Senate is so slim that any substantive legislation would require a bloc of GOP votes.
"Anything you do in this town, you have to work both sides of the aisle," said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It hasn't always been that way. For years, the Republican Party, led by House GOP leader Tom DeLay, promoted a plan to put more Republicans in key lobbying positions. Now, some trade groups are scrambling to correct the imbalance.
The lobbying industry's readjustment comes as Congress considers further restrictions on how lawmakers and lobbyists interact — a response to the influence-peddling scandals that have rocked the capital over the last two years. Pending legislation would extend to two years the current one-year ban on lobbying Congress by former senators, House members and congressional staffers.
For former lawmakers or top notch congressional staffers, the financial incentives are huge. Mid to high six-figure salaries are not unusual for the well-connected. But even at the lower policy positions, experts in tax policy or pensions or government regulations are being offered salary increases of $20,000 to $40,000.
Some companies and business groups are building bridges with Democrats in other ways. AT&T and Boeing are among corporations that already have given money to incoming Democratic lawmakers in the last few weeks, even though they supported their Republican opponents during the campaign.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is ready to entertain the new congressional leadership in a town house it bought for $1.9 million and renovated a few blocks from the Capitol.
But even as Washington's influence and lobbying industry adjusts to the new political landscape, there is a reverse flow of talent heading back to Capitol Hill.
They are former congressional aides like Sean Kennedy, a one-time Gephardt aide who left Congress to lobby for AT&T and is now poised to return as the chief of staff for Democratic Senator-elect Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
"My entire Hill career was working in the minority," Kennedy said. "The opportunity to come back in the majority to work for a fantastic member of Congress, certainly as chief of staff, is hard to resist."
Before making his decision, Kennedy said he "foolishly" created a spread sheet that projected his salary over six years at AT&T and his salary over that period working in Congress.
"If you make your decision based on that you'll be miserable," he said. "I closed the spread sheet and never looked at it again."