Peoria Journal Star

May 30, 2001

Coaxing Congress 
 Peoria native Nelson Litterst has an acute case of 'Potomac fever.'
 

By DORI MEINERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

Nelson Litterst used a lot of shoe leather last week, hustling between
meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill to help shepherd President Bush's legislative agenda through the House. 

The 34-year-old Peoria native helped round up key House Republicans
for a sit-down with Bush to ensure broad support for his education plan. It passed the House overwhelmingly later that day. 

Litterst and a colleague worked behind the scenes during two days of
inconclusive hearings on the California energy crisis to reinforce White
House opposition to energy price caps. 

And he stuck it out until Saturday, when Congress gave final approval
to Bush's tax-cut package. 

"It's been a pretty positive legislative week," said Litterst, one of 13
White House congressional lobbyists. 

He's no doubt relieved he's not assigned to the Senate, where his
counterparts were criticized after U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont
quit the GOP to become an independent, thus giving Democrats control
of the Senate. 

Litterst is one of five liaisons to the 435-member House. Each must
know how 80-plus members plan to vote on any given piece of
legislation. And they field requests and complaints from House members.

His job is to inform, educate, persuade, cajole and sweet-talk members, particularly independent-minded Republicans and wary Democrats, to support Bush's agenda. 

When Congress is in session, Litterst spends more time on Capitol Hill
than in his shared office on the first floor of the White House's East
Wing. 

"A lot of it is just being up there, being visible . . . we're an extension of the president on Capitol Hill," he said. As he walks the halls of House office buildings and the Capitol between meetings, he stops often to greet House members. 

"Most have something they want to bring up with us, everything from
legislation to trying to get a birthday greeting from the president for a
constituent," Litterst said. 

Litterst knows these hallways well. In 1988, he worked as a college
intern for then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Peoria. He was hired by Michel's chief of staff at the time, Ray LaHood, who was elected to the seat after Michel retired. 

"I was out here for a summer and just got Potomac Fever," Litterst said. "I fell in love with the place." 

Born and raised in Peoria, Litterst graduated from Woodruff High School
in 1985 and Indiana University in 1989. He then joined Michel's office as a full-time staff assistant, answering phones and making copies. It was during the first Bush presidency. 

"It was really just a phenomenal learning experience at one of the best
places because Bob Michel always ran his office like family," Litterst
recalled. 

Litterst worked for two years as a legislative assistant to then-U.S.
Rep. Gary Franks, a Republican from Connecticut. 

Then, he polished his lobbying skills at the National Federation of
Independent Business, the largest small-business advocacy group in the country, ultimately directing its House lobbying office. 

The relationships he made in that job prepared him for the White House position. 

Even liberal House members like U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Chicago, praise his deftness. 

"His approach is very polite, respectful, and the case he makes is based on the substance of the matter with an understanding and sensitivity to the individual member's district and political concerns," said Blagojevich. "When I heard he was taking a pay cut to work at the White House, I was actually kind of proud of him and happy for him...." 

In a town where relationships can mean everything, Litterst maintains
strong ties with those he worked with in Michel's office. One of his
oldest friends in Washington is John Feehery, press secretary to House
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville. He and Feehery, who was in
Litterst' wedding three years ago, started work in Michel's office the
same week. 

And it was LaHood, whose eldest son was a teen-age pal of Litterst,
who helped him into the world of politics in 1988 and recommended him for the White House job. 

Litterst's focus on energy and environmental issues puts him in the
middle of a controversial decision the Bush White House must make
affecting Illinois' ethanol industry. 

LaHood and other Illinois lawmakers hope Litterst is more sensitive to
Illinois' needs because he grew up there. 

But Litterst knows who his boss is. "My ultimate responsibility is to the
president of the United States. I serve at the pleasure of the president
and my key goal is to do what he believes is best for the country," he
said. 

The job requires thick skin. 

"Absolutely the hardest part of the job is saying no to somebody or
saying something that you know they don't want to hear," Litterst said.