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Players: Eric M. Ueland

A Detail Guy With a Broad Perspective

Frist Chief of Staff Finesses the Rules

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page A15

Dominating a wall in Eric M. Ueland's office in the Capitol is a gigantic black-and-white photo of a 1958 Montana cattle drive, with nearly 20 mounted cowboys, scores of cattle and a magnificent vista of mountains and sky. It's a telling choice for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's chief of staff.

Ueland, 39, takes a big-sky, high-altitude, wide-lens view of the complex Senate, where it is easy to get bogged down in minutiae and seemingly endless quarrels. He is a master of the institution's intricacies and arcana, associates say, but he takes pride in pulling the camera back and keeping Congress's purpose and potential in perspective.

Eric M. Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), has mastered the art of "being aggressive without being obnoxious," former colleague Greg Casey says. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Eric M. Ueland

Title: Chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Education: Bachelor's degree in history, with honors, University of San Francisco.

Age: 39.

Family: Married; one son, two daughters.

Career highlights: Staffer for Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Pastimes: Gardening, cooking, model-building.

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In a recent interview, Ueland (pronounced you-lund) said his job is "to synthesize and blend a multitude of outlooks and viewpoints . . . to advance the agenda" of Frist (R-Tenn.), the Republican caucus and "things the president has asked us to get done." On a typical day, he said, he deals with "procedural issues, member relations, White House and congressional issues, press issues and political issues." And "sometimes that can all happen simultaneously."

If it sounds overwhelming to outsiders, Ueland embraces it with relish. "I am so pumped every morning when I walk in and look up at the Capitol dome," he said.

That entrance usually occurs about 7 a.m., and he is rarely home before 8 p.m. When things go well, he said, the long days are devoted mostly to "figuring out how to untie a knot so a piece of legislation can pass, a nomination can clear."

But there are other times, Ueland acknowledges, when "attitudes, platitudes and ingratitude contribute to a lack of progress" and "process can substitute for progress. . . . You can walk out at the end of the day very, very disappointed that the whole day resulted in nothing."

"But you can't take it personally," he added. Legislative staffers must stay focused on the big picture, knowing that everything they do in Congress "contributes to where America is going. . . . For a kid from Portland, Oregon, it's a real treat, and very humbling."

Ueland, the oldest of four children whose mother was a nurse and whose father sold real estate, headed south to attend the Jesuit-affiliated University of San Francisco. He joined the student newspaper, where he wrote conservative editorials and met his future wife, Cathleen O'Donnell.

An internship with the conservative magazine American Spectator led to a job at the Senate Republican Policy Committee, where he took on a task that many young adults would find stupefying. Ueland, however, found it fascinating, and it put him on a path toward a legislative career instead of teaching, his original goal. He was assigned to monitor Senate floor action for a Republican closed-circuit television station, typing succinct updates to be superimposed on the screen so that GOP lawmakers and aides would always know what was happening and about to happen.

"You had to listen, learn and summarize very briefly," Ueland said, even when the subject involved complex parliamentary maneuvers that could send the most senior staffers scurrying to their manuals of procedures. The job was "a wonderful kickoff for trying to see how the place works."

Quickly learning the Senate's Byzantine rules and precedents, he worked closely with senators active in the conservative-oriented policy committee. They included Larry E. Craig (Idaho) and Don Nickles (Okla.), who recently retired after 24 years in the Senate.

"He's just fantastic," Nickles said in an interview. "He's a walking encyclopedia," a man who "knows Senate history probably equal to anyone."

Senate rules, Nickles said, often seem designed to block action. But he admires Ueland because the young aide learned how to use the rules "to make things work."

Fellow staffers were equally impressed. Greg Casey was Craig's chief of staff when he got to know Ueland, whom he calls "the consummate political policy integrator." Casey, now president of the business-oriented BIPAC, said Ueland fights energetically for his bosses' causes, but does so with a level of knowledge and respect that gains him few enemies. "Eric has got a long history of being aggressive without being obnoxious," Casey said.

Ueland keeps three large blue charts behind a bookcase, retrieving them when a senator, staffer or even a journalist needs a lesson in the Senate's rules for amending bills. The intricate flowcharts speak of "first-degree substitute amendments," "second-degree perfecting amendments" and other parliamentary devices whose well-timed deployment can sink or salvage a bill.

He views these tools -- or more precisely, knowing when and how to use them -- as weapons in an unending legislative and partisan war.

"It's just like the military," he said. "When is the right time to go forward? How do you soften up the other side?"

That sort of analytical and aggressive thinking appealed to Frist when he left his Tennessee medical practice to join the Senate 10 years ago. He eventually hired Ueland and promoted him to chief of staff in December, when longtime aide Lee Rawls retired.

"Eric would be a success anywhere," Frist said, "and I'm glad he is on our team here and now because he makes a real difference for us every day."

Ueland said he and his boss are a good fit because they both embrace the Senate's fine-print details as well as its grander visions and place in American history.

Small wonder, then, that Frist chose a chief of staff who keeps intricately detailed charts close at hand, and a big-sky photo on the wall.

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