Obama's Chief of Staff Grants Access, Gets Results

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's expertise and dealmaking are key components in President Obama's legislative strategy.
Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's expertise and dealmaking are key components in President Obama's legislative strategy. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

As the House and Senate debated the budget earlier this month, Rahm Emanuel's spacious West Wing office took on the feel of a legislative bazaar.

Wavering Democrats filed in individually and in groups seeking audiences with President Obama's pugnacious chief of staff, all bearing concerns about the 2010 fiscal blueprint. For some, the issue was farm payments. For others, veterans benefits. Fiscal conservatives balked at the $1.2 trillion deficit. One House member wanted to discuss a new federal building in his district. Another sought an appointment with the commerce secretary.

Forty-six lawmakers beat a path to the White House, and, on April 2, Emanuel's hospitality paid off. All but three of his visitors voted in the House or Senate for a $3.5 trillion blueprint that preserved Obama's ambitious domestic policy goals. The 233 to 196 House margin represented the largest budget victory for either party in a decade.

Emanuel's theatrical style, ballet training and "Rahmbo" nickname, along with the well-worn story about a dead fish he sent to a rival, are duly noted on his Wikipedia page. But in his new job, Emanuel is overhauling his image, becoming more valet than hit man, and his formula for moving Obama's agenda through Congress is beginning to resonate. Even Republicans concede that given Obama's early victories, thornier tasks such as landmark health-care, energy and education bills may not be out of reach.

One admirer is Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who got to know Emanuel during his House days. "There's a consensus among Republicans who can be objective that the president did a good thing in picking Rahm," King said. "He's tough, and he's really not that partisan. He doesn't think he's morally superior to Republicans, and that alone will get you far in this environment."

King added: "If he can knock me off in the next election, he will, and I totally accept that."

Not all Republicans are so admiring of Emanuel's tactics. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, compared Emanuel's role in trying to tie Republicans to controversial comments by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh to some of the maneuvers used by another White House chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman.

"It reminds me of the Nixon White House, and I think as long as Rahm Emanuel's there -- he's sort of the Haldeman of this administration," Gingrich said on NBC's "Today" show last month.

The Obama administration has deep roots on Capitol Hill. At least a dozen senior White House officials are veteran committee or leadership aides. Chief legislative liaison Phil Schiliro is the former chief of staff to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose portfolio includes health care and climate change. Senior adviser Pete Rouse is a 30-year Hill veteran and a low-profile alter ego to Emanuel, with better Senate connections. Budget director Peter Orszag previously ran the Congressional Budget Office and is highly regarded in both chambers. The lineup also includes former appropriations, banking and rules committee staffers.

But Emanuel's résumé has the most range. The 49-year-old Chicago native, a longtime aide to President Bill Clinton, won a North Side House seat in 2002 and quickly ascended the leadership ladder. In 2006, Emanuel took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and orchestrated a 31-seat sweep that lifted his party into the majority and expanded its reach across the South and Midwest. Torn between his Obama and Clinton friendships, Emanuel focused on House races last year and helped Democrats win 21 more seats.

The White House legislative strategy blends Obama's vision and salesmanship with Emanuel's granular political expertise and dealmaking skills. One of Emanuel's targets in the run-up to the budget vote was Rep. Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat who opposed Obama's proposal to save nearly $10 billion over 10 years by cutting federal payments to large farms.

Berry still seemed agitated after a brief session in Emanuel's office, so the chief of staff played his trump card. "I walked him down to the Oval" and introduced Berry to Obama, Emanuel recalled. The two traded farm jokes and agreed to talk later in the year about a comprehensive review of federal agriculture policy. Berry, a longtime Clinton ally, said he "really did appreciate" the attention and was relieved that Obama appeared willing to back off the cuts, at least for now. When the House voted, he was a yes.

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