Give-and-Take With Emanuel Advances President's Agenda
Lawmakers Respond to Improved Access to White House

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.

"I was never a big Obama guy, but when I heard on the news that Rahm was going to be chief of staff, I thought, of all people I've known in my life, he was born to be chief of staff to a great president," Berry said. "He's young and tough and smart, and can be mean when necessary. He doesn't waste energy on foolish things."

In Berry, Emanuel saw a veteran lawmaker "who felt like his voice wasn't being heard," something he understood from his combined Hill and White House experience. "I know these guys; I know what makes them tick. I know their districts. It's not the first time I've ever talked to them," Emanuel said.

In the Senate, several prominent Democrats, including Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), had taken a stand against special budget instructions to protect Obama's health-care, education and global warming initiatives from a filibuster. Both parties had used the "reconciliation" shortcut in recent years to move contentious bills through a chamber known for parliamentary pitfalls. But Baucus was seeking large bipartisan consensus for health-care reform, and he worried that reconciliation would offend potential GOP allies.

Emanuel, a former member of the House Budget Committee, saw a way to meet Baucus halfway. Reconciliation instructions could be added but would not take effect until fall, giving Republicans time to show interest in compromise. Also, the language would cover only health care and education. Emanuel concluded that including Obama's cap-and-trade system to combat climate change "was a bridge too far." It would ask too much of vulnerable Democrats, given their fears about creating higher consumer electricity costs.

"We decided we would let the process work, but we wouldn't hold the process hostage" to Republican obstruction, Emanuel said. House leaders had been considering reconciliation and added the instructions to their budget. Before lawmakers left town last week for a spring recess, even Baucus conceded that reconciliation language in the conference report is probably a done deal.

Every morning at 8:45, long before the House and Senate come to order, Emanuel hosts a meeting in his White House office to review congressional business. Attendees include Schiliro and his congressional team, along with representatives of the policy, political and press offices. Emanuel also sits down once a week with a different committee chairman and ranking member to catch up on business before their panel. Obama attends at least part of those sessions. Emanuel brings in all the major groups: the Blue Dog budget hawks, the moderate New Democrats, the politically skittish House freshman class. One night when the House Budget Committee was working late, Emanuel sent over eight chocolate cakes and a batch of cookies. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) summoned him to a recent committee meeting to prod Democrats to move faster on financial regulatory reform. "I thought it was important for them to hear it from someone they know and trust," Frank said.

Emanuel speaks with House and Senate leadership aides multiple times every day, and consults with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) at least four times a week. During a recent Senate debate, Reid asked Emanuel to lean on three Democratic holdouts. When Emanuel reported back with a single convert, Reid chastised him that "batting .333 isn't good enough for the major leagues" of Congress. Emanuel responded with a string of expletives but tried again and produced a second vote.

Even GOP lawmakers praised the White House attention. "He always takes my calls," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate who is wooed by Democrats on every major bill. She even considered voting for the budget.

When Snowe heard that Obama would visit Turkey at the end of his first overseas trip as president, the Greek American senator called Emanuel to ask that Obama meet with the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul.

Already on the itinerary, the chief of staff assured her. Hours after Emanuel returned to the White House last week, he was working on another sale, telling himself, "I better call Olympia to tell her how it went."

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