By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama officially resigned from the Senate yesterday, removing himself from any official role in the lame-duck session of Congress that will convene this week. He also laid more groundwork for the start of his administration by deciding on additional members of his senior staff, including a White House counsel, and preparing to meet with another onetime political rival.
Obama is scheduled to meet today with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he defeated in the Nov. 4 presidential election, at his transition offices in downtown Chicago. The meeting comes days after the president-elect sat down separately with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, both of whom opposed him in the Democratic primaries.
Obama and McCain clashed sharply during the hard-fought campaign, but they agreed on several issues, including the urgency of combating climate change and the general need to tone down the intense partisanship that often paralyzes official Washington.
"It's well known that they share an important belief that Americans want and deserve a more effective and efficient government, and will discuss ways to work together to make that a reality," said Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
The president-elect announced his resignation from the Senate in a letter published in Illinois newspapers, telling his constituents, "I will never forget, and will forever be grateful, to the men and women of this great state who made my life in public service possible."
Saying that he is "ending one journey to begin another," Obama added that he is stepping down "to prepare for the responsibilities I will assume as our nation's next president." Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has said he will appoint a replacement senator by the end of the year.
The action means Obama will not be part of the congressional debate this week over a stimulus package to jump-start the nation's struggling economy. He has said the package should include an extension of unemployment benefits and aid for the foundering auto industry, but prospects for passage of that type of plan appear slim.
So far this year, the nation has shed 1.2 million jobs, while many Americans have been buffeted by shrinking housing values and stock portfolios. At the same time, the nation's automakers are asking Washington for a $50 billion bailout package, to help them survive a sharp decline in sales as they attempt to revamp their plants to build more-fuel-efficient vehicles.
The Bush administration has been reluctant to let the auto industry tap the $700 billion in bailout funds approved by Congress earlier this fall, saying that it would rather expedite release of $25 billion in funds Congress previously passed to aid the automakers.
"If Congress does not pass an immediate plan that gives the economy the boost it needs, I will make it my first order of business as president," Obama said in his radio address over the weekend.
While Congress debates how best to help the economy, Obama is expected to continue building his governing team. Yesterday, the top tier of his White House staff came further into focus with several new selections.
Washington lawyer Gregory B. Craig will be White House counsel, according to a person involved in the transition, and Obama's Senate chief of staff, Peter M. Rouse, 62, was officially announced as a senior White House adviser. Two deputy chiefs of staff were also announced: Jim Messina and Mona K. Sutphen.
Thus far, Obama's selections have been mostly a mix of Washington veterans -- many with ties to the Clinton administration -- and trusted campaign aides. Late last week, the president-elect named close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett as a senior White House aide. Campaign strategist David Axelrod will also hold a senior advisory role.
Obama has not yet announced any Cabinet selections, although the meetings with Clinton and Richardson excited speculation that one was imminent, since both are said to be on his shortlist for secretary of state.
A transition aide said yesterday that it was too soon to say when Obama would begin making Cabinet selections.
In turning to Craig, Obama is tapping the lawyer who defended President Bill Clinton against impeachment charges. During the campaign, Craig became a close adviser to Obama, and he served as the stand-in for McCain during debate preparations. He did not return messages seeking comment, and transition officials declined to comment on his selection.
Craig was a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and worked in the State Department for Madeleine K. Albright before being tapped as special counsel in the impeachment trial. A longtime partner at the firm Williams and Connolly, he has defended high-profile clients in criminal trials, including John W. Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, and Kennedy nephew William Kennedy Smith, who was accused of rape.
As White House counsel, Craig, 63, will be responsible for steering the new president through a series of legal thickets that have become controversial during the past eight years, including torture policy and the legal disposition of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He will also oversee White House vetting of potential appointees to the Supreme Court.
Rouse, 62, has spent more than three decades in top jobs on Capitol Hill and is one of Obama's most trusted advisers. He was part of the small cadre of people who counseled him through his decision to run for president.
Messina, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is director of personnel for the Obama transition team and was national chief of staff for Obama's presidential campaign. Sutphen, also a member of the transition team staff, is managing director of Stonebridge International, a global consulting firm co-chaired by Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. Sutphen, a Foreign Service officer during the 1990s, worked in the Clinton White House from 1998 to 2000.
Staff writers Michael D. Shear, Chris Cillizza and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.