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While most Americans will catch glimpses of President Barack Obama's second inauguration festivities from their living room TVs or on the Internet, a privileged set of celebrities and special interests will get up close — in exclusive soirees just blocks from the ceremonies.
The parties are a January tradition, where high-powered lobbying shops and law firms open up their offices for clients, legislators and government officials, affording opportunities to renew ties and lay the groundwork for lobbying and deal-making. The gatherings in Pennsylvania Avenue suites offer unrivaled peeks from the balcony as the commander in chief's caravan rolls by, supplemented by high-priced hotel rooms, gala balls and invitation-only parties.
As the A-listers streamed in Monday, Washington's political world braced for a scaled-back version of the festivities of four years ago, when more than 1.5 million people packed the National Mall. Lobbying shops got fewer ticket requests from corporate clients and office parties shrank to appeal to smaller crowds.
Four years ago, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips held its traditional inauguration day party for clients at its downtown D.C. offices. On Monday, the firm opened its doors early as a "launch pad" for guests, a pit stop to warm up, drop off bags, recharge IPhones and toss down a bloody Mary before heading out into the morning chill.
"We're not planning for a big crowd. This is for clients and friends in town who want a cup of coffee and some shelter before they deal with the mile-long lines out there," said James J. Bonham, head of the firm's government affairs and public policy shop.
Downtown Washington's hotels were jammed, though not to capacity, and its closed-off streets were invaded with hundreds of gleaming limousines. Nearby Dulles International Airport anticipated roughly 300 private aircraft for the weekend, though significantly fewer than the 700 planes from last time. Hotels offered top-dollar packages with views of the day's events, and some guests asked staffers to clear out excess furniture so they could pack in more friends.
At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue — at the Willard Intercontinental, overlooking the White House — corporations and associations booked many of the rooms with the best views to entertain clients. The 165-year-old hotel boasts that President Abraham Lincoln stayed there before his 1860 inauguration.
A CEO who arrived via private jet insisted on green tea, sauvignon blanc and fresh fruit in the suite, organizers said. One well-known singer requested a gluten-free menu. Hotel staff worked with the Secret Service so that VIP guests could easily get through security perimeters, arranged to have an onsite seamstress for last-minute ball gown alterations and ordered extra ponchos and hand sanitizers to ward off the elements at the height of a nasty flu season.
"Seize every moment to surprise and delight our customers," manager James Ryan told his team during a planning meeting to which The Associated Press was invited.
Lowered expectations may be keeping away some big spenders. Washington's W Hotel, which boasts prime parade-watching real estate on 15th Street near the White House, has touted its $50,000 "E-Wow" suite for a minimum four-night stay, complete with butler's pantry, virtual fireplace and $100,000 worth of jewelry on loan for the weekend. But as of Sunday night, the suite had not been booked. Georgetown's Fairmount, further from the parade route, countered with a $100,000 "Presidential Detail Package" for four nights, offering a $5,000 shopping spree, in-room hair styling, matching Rolex watches and two hotel staffers to provide security and even dog-walking.
Washington power-players have dozens of unofficial balls to pick from, and they're usually thrown by state parties or interest groups. The official inaugural committee is banning corporate sponsorships, but that hasn't stopped big companies and other interests from headlining events elsewhere: Household names like AT&T Inc., Merck & Co., the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are all sponsoring events, according to an AP review of invitations collected by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation.
Obama's second-term inaugurations can't compete with the historic appeal of his 2009 swearing-in. But some lobbying veterans also blame the lowered profile of corporate parties on his administration's self-proclaimed ethics stance. Four years ago, Obama tightened regulations on "revolving door" officials and inveighed against excessive lobbying.
Even with tougher rules, the White House has still hosted corporate interests and lobbyists at times, but officials say Obama's ethics efforts have had a strong impact. "President Obama has done more in the past four years to close the revolving door of special interest influence than any president before him," said White House spokesman Eric H. Schultz.
"Many of the lobbyists I know are far less warm on Obama than they were four years ago," said Wright H. Andrews Jr., a former president of the American League of Lobbyists. "They're understandably displeased with his vilification of lobbyists."
Limousine rentals were still doing brisk business, judging by the elegant stretches clogging downtown streets. Several limousine services advertised inaugural specials at as much as $140 an hour, touting plush 20-passenger Lincolns and Humvees equipped with large-screen televisions and minibars stocked with champagne. The D.C. Taxicab Commission expected to process 1,500 special inauguration chauffeur permits, as far away as Florida and Oklahoma, said spokesman Neville Waters.
He said limo companies typically import hundreds of extra sedans for the inauguration from outside Washington, mandating a need for special permits. But Waters said the city expected fewer limos navigating downtown D.C. this weekend compared to four year ago.
"I guess it's kind of a been-there, done-that kind of thing," he said.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report from Washington.
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