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."
On the other side of the aisle, most Republicans have turned a cold shoulder to Obama's attempts at political courtship. Saying they're more than the "Party of No," they've begun pitching policy alternatives, though shrunken minorities in both houses make it difficult for their ideas to gain traction. Their attack machine, though, has been roaring practically 24-7.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The head of a caucus that has dropped to 40 members, the Republican leader regularly takes aim at the White House. His mantra on Obama's $3.5 trillion budget proposal is "It spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much." The line was widely parroted by GOP lawmakers in both chambers. He and House Minority Leader John Boehner meet weekly, and their staffs are in constant contact. Often they'll target areas where they perceive Obama as weak: spending, record deficits, pork projects in the $787 billion stimulus, and closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. McConnell, 67, a methodical, cool-under-pressure player who was elected to the Senate in 1984, is quick to point out that neither party has had a filibuster-proof 60 seats during his tenure. But if defections on key votes give him heartburn, Specter's exit had him fuming, and the Minnesota contest could give Democrats 60.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. An impulsive gesture, or planned political theater? You be the judge. Check out Boehner on YouTube on February 13, when he held a stack of papers constituting the 1,100-page stimulus and charged that not a single member of Congress had read the bill as the vote neared. "What happened to the promise that we're going to let the American people see what's in the bill for 48 hours?" he roared, dropping the stack on the floor in disgust. Before long, the YouTube spot had 472,678 viewings.
Boehner, 59, a perpetually tanned golfer and fixture on the talk shows, says that he wants the GOP to be the "party of better solutions." Though he has been a guest at Obama's White House, he's not smitten. "It's better than nothing, but thus far the outreach hasn't extended to working with Republicans on policy," an aide says.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. The Richmond conservative saw to it that not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus. Cantor, 45, entered Congress in 2001 and now holds the No. 2 spot among House Republicans. He's promoting what he calls an "entrepreneurial insurgency" by offering policy alternatives. He may speak with a Southern drawl, but his genteel exterior conceals a street fighter within.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana. Once a conservative talk-radio host, Pence, 49, elected in 2000, is never at a loss for words. Ranked third in the House GOP leadership, Pence tried to distance himself from Rush Limbaugh's comment that he hopes Obama fails because of his "socialist" policies, but the lawmaker said he agreed with the talk giant's condemnation of those policies. And he tore into Obama for shaking Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's hand, slamming Chávez as a "virulent, anti-American, socialist dictator."
House Republican Steve King of Iowa. A reliable loose cannon, King, 59, saw his name identification soar when he warned that if Obama were elected, radical Islamists "will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11." Next, the four-term lawmaker questioned Obama's using his full name, including the middle name, Hussein, at his swearing-in. Since such remarks can backfire, some Demo-crats regard King as the gift that keeps on giving.