Remember all the talk about Barack Obama's "Team of Rivals"? Hooey. In fact, he relies on friends, wins some converts and loses others, and takes fire from the GOP. Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party might make him Obama's newest pal, but there are several other key friends—and reliable foes—on Capitol Hill. Here's a guide:
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. As Barack Obama's BlackBerry buddy, mentor, and consigliere, Durbin is as close to him as anyone in Congress. Durbin, 64, like many, fell under Obama's spell when he addressed the 2004 Democratic convention. Durbin hit the campaign trail with Obama in his Senate run, helped him learn the ropes after he won, and urged him early on to try a race for the White House. Durbin has strong ties to such key Obama advisers as David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. The Illinois senator was at the White House so often after Obama was sworn in (eight times during the first three weeks, an aide says) that his staff joked: "We know they can't give you a bedroom, but could they have a Durbin closet for you?"
The liberal Durbin is the Senate Democratic whip, charged with lining up votes and devising the message. "Durbin talks to Rahm four or five times every week, without fail," says the aide. "He talks to Axelrod two to three times every week, without fail. And he talks to the president two to three times every week, without fail."
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Like many Westerners, he calls it as he sees it, can have a short fuse, and is not high on social graces. The Senate majority leader remains a pivotal ally who handed over a Las Vegas jackpot when he helped deliver ex-GOPer Specter to the Democrats. Specter, taking heat from Republicans for favoring the stimulus, reportedly vented with both Reid and Vice President Joe Biden. Reid, 69, in the Senate since 1987, is effusive in praise for Obama and Biden.
Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. In endorsing Obama, Kennedy reminded people that his brother John had been dismissed as inexperienced but had challenged America to cross a "new frontier." For Obama, he said, "I see not just the audacity but the possibility of hope for the America that is yet to be."
Within months, Kennedy, 77, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Despite surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and kidney stones, he made it to the podium to deliver a rousing address for Obama in Denver. He witnessed the inauguration, too, though he was so frail he collapsed at a post-inaugural lunch in the Capitol. Fast-forward to April, when Obama heralded him as a friend, colleague, and "one of the finest leaders we've ever had." The president was speaking at the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to expand AmeriCorps.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. This freshman has outsize influence with Obama, in part because she was the first female senator to throw her support to him. McCaskill, 55, who lost a 2004 bid for Missouri governor, had Obama's help in her Senate race in 2006. A moderate who supports gun-owner rights, she is not as liberal as Obama but has his ear.
McCaskill was in Chicago's Grant Park when Obama gave his victory speech, was at the wee-hours-of-the-morning White House party for his inner circle after the inauguration, and, as his 100-day mark neared, was invited to the Oval Office. She planned a "casual, candid conversation" giving "unvarnished input of strengths and weaknesses so far."
Rep. Henry Waxman of California. The veteran lawmaker from Los Angeles is less a personal friend and more a legislative ally. He says he wouldn't have challenged Rep. John Dingell, the chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, had Obama not won. That Waxman, 69, prevailed makes him well positioned to try to advance healthcare reform and a cap-and-trade regime for carbon emissions. Both are heavy lifts. "The president only has a small period of time to get these things through," Waxman says. "I'm optimistic that we're going to pass both."