Although the Bush administration has supported expanding trade with Laos, it hasn't yet asked Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status with the impoverished, authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
Some Lao-American groups, particularly the Lao Veterans of America, which lobbied successfully for U.S. recognition of the ethnic Hmong who fought alongside Americans during the Vietnam War, have strongly opposed the trade pact.
Lao Vets have opposed expanded trade "aggressively," said Philip S. Smith, who lobbies for the group and some other Lao-American organizations. Any new trade pact "ought to be conditioned on reform" and improved human rights in Laos, he said.
"These groups are not categorically opposed to it. It's premature," he said.
With hopes that they could improve social and economic conditions in Laos by increasing trade, several organizations -- including the American Friends Service Committee, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, National Laotian Americans for Reconciliation and Development and the Mennonite Central Committee -- held a symposium on U.S.-Lao relations late last month. The idea, in part, was to encourage more Lao-Americans to speak out. Legislative sponsors were Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).
U.S. Ambassador to Laos Douglas A. Hartwick, a career Senior Foreign Service officer, came home for the symposium to hear those voices and consult with the administration and the Hill on trade. "I need to know a lot more of Lao-American views," he said in an interview.
Hartwick said he's no apologist for the Laotian government, but "engaging" the Laotians with improved trade is key to changing the government's ways and alleviating peoples' hardships.
"The status quo does not serve the U.S. interest," he said.
Smith charged that the ambassador's "agenda is a violation of the gentleman's agreement" that he said allowed Hartwick's confirmation to go through the Senate. That agreement, according to Smith, called for human rights reforms first and PNTR "eventually."
"The first chance he gets, he's over here jumping the gun," Smith charged.
Hartwick, who was nominated by both former president Bill Clinton and President Bush, said he knows of no such agreement. "In fact, advancing a trade agenda with Laos, i.e. passing NTR, has been on President Bush's trade agenda from the beginning of his administration way before my confirmation came to the Senate floor," he said.
Intent on growing its lobbying practice, the North Carolina law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice has signed up Jeff Lane, chief of staff to Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, and a former aide to now-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). Just last month, Womble Carlyle hired Walker F. Nolan, a former executive of the Edison Electric Institute and, way earlier, counsel to the Watergate committee.
The Washington government relations practice now numbers just four, also including Ashley Thrift, a former top aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who moves between North Carolina and the capital; and Kevin Jones, a former aide to then-Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. (D-Tex.).
But former North Carolina governor and Womble Carlyle partner Jim Hunt (D) says the firm is on the hunt for more lobbyists, especially some Republicans. The firm has about 450 lawyers, with 50 in the Washington area.
"Our aim is to become one of the most effective government relations practices in the capital," Hunt said.
The firm-wide government relations practice is chaired by Burley B. Mitchell Jr., former North Carolina chief justice. Hunt is not a registered lobbyist, but said, "I have a lot of friends in business and the political community and will advise this [Washington] group."
Lane, who is on paternity leave, will start next month at Womble Carlyle.
Cassidy & Associates is doing a little reorganizing to better position itself to take advantage of Washington's heightened interest in transportation security and big aviation and highway reauthorizations coming up next year. The lobby shop has made some hires in recent months to bolster its transportation lobbying capability and, with existing folks, pulled together a transportation and infrastructure team.
The team is "giving a new emphasis to an existing capability," said Mike Strachn, leader of the team, who joined Cassidy in March from the Hill, where he was deputy chief of staff for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Also on the team: Scott Bosworth, former assistant secretary of transportation for Massachusetts; Dan McNamara, an aide to former senator Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.); Matt Trant, former deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority; Peter Halpin, former director of congressional affairs for the Department of Transportation in the Clinton administration, who joined in April; and David J. Oliveira, former staff counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who joined last month.
Furthermore . . . Todd J. Araujo, deputy director of the Office of Tribal Justice in the Justice Department, has joined Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. A member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Araujo will specialize in Native American law and policy.
Tita Thompson, most recently of LexisNexis and Teligent, has joined the Business Roundtable as deputy director of communications.