President Barack Obama's strict ban on lobbyist contributions will limit the haul from Thursday night's fundraising dinner for congressional Democrats, but organizers have found a way around it: a morning-after event at the same hotel where lobbyists - and their money - will be welcomed with open arms.
Invitations for the $5,000-per-person Issues Conference don't say it's an effort to skirt Obama's lobbying ban, but they walk right up to the edge.
"Please note that the Friday Issues Conference is NOT subject to lobbyist restrictions, though the event is intended for personal contributions only," a finance official from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote in an e-mail sent to lobbyists Tuesday and obtained by POLITICO, bolding the entire sentence to underscore the clarification. "The Issues Conference is separate from the DSCC/DCCC events with President Obama."
One prominent Democratic lobbyist unhappy with the situation described it vividly: "It's almost like the ugly girl that you want to call late at night - but don't want to be seen with on a date."
The morning-long session with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and top committee chairmen from both chambers may not comply with the spirit of Obama's lobbying ban, but some Democrats say the White House has only itself to blame.
"They're asleep at the switch," said a former Democratic leadership aide who glanced at the spreadsheet for the dinner and panned it as "pathetic." "They're not really thinking about how these things look for other people."
Democrats say that Obama and his top aides have done almost nothing to promote the DSCC/DCCC dinner - the campaign committees' primary annual money-raiser - and that the president's lobbying ban has only made matters worse.
The dinner, to be held at the tony Mandarin Oriental Hotel, is expected to bring in about $3 million - about one-fifth of what the Republicans brought in at this month's joint dinner for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats reject comparisons between the two fundraisers, noting that the Republicans count everything that they raised in the two months prior to the event as going toward their dinner - and that the GOP committees sell "membership" packages that include tickets to the event, among other perks.
Still, the Democrats are using the Republicans' big haul as a way to encourage contributions to their own dinner. "Don't believe what you've heard about a GOP in disarray," DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch wrote in an e-mail to donors Tuesday. "They're mad, they're organized and they're determined to return to what they see as their rightful place: ruling the halls of Congress. How do I know? $14.4 million. That's how much Newt Gingrich raised during a fundraising dinner last week for Republican House and Senate committees."
And Democrats are suggesting privately that they'd be raising more if the White House had played a more active role.
"They didn't even send out a surrogate e-mail," said a prominent Democrat involved with the dinner. This source noted that Obama's political organization had sent out messages to its expansive e-mail list this week promoting health care reform and even the Democratic nominee in the Virginia governor's race, but there was nothing about what is always a closely watched event, interpreted in the political community as an indication of the party's strength.
The former Democratic leadership aide said Obama's high command needed to takea lesson from the "Clinton model" with regard to Cabinet officials raising cash.
"They need to explain to these surrogates that they've got a night job, too," said the Democrat, alluding to after-hours fundraising.
There are some signs that the word may be getting out. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel raised money for a handful of Senate Democratic incumbents and hopefuls earlier this week in Chicago, and POLITICO has learned that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is slated to join Pelosi next week in San Francisco for an "ultimate women's power lunch" to benefit the DCCC.
Asked for comment about the griping, the White House directed an inquiry to the Democratic National Committee, which declined to address the complaints.
In the off-year especially, when fewer individuals are paying close attention to politics, lobbyist contributions are key for fundraising - and Democrats say Obama's no-lobbyist ban is making their work harder.
"It's kind of like going to Los Angeles and then excluding the entertainment industry," said a senior Democrat. "Well, then you're going to have a lame event."
"The whole Obama anti-lobbyist thing is having an effect on lobbyists giving personal money," said one well-known Democratic lobbyist, who said party officials are "making it worse" by then going to lengths to make clear that their money is welcome when the president is not in the room.
One official familiar with the events sought to put the best face on the situation, arguing that Obama is bringing new money to the dinner that wouldn't be there otherwise - and that the K Street cash will still come through at the morning-after event.
"We'll still get the lobbyist money," said this official.
By Jonathan Martin