In the speaker's office, a quiet liberal lion: Wendell E. Primus

By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; A15

Wendell E. Primus is one of the few people on Capitol Hill who isn't afraid of Rahm Emanuel. And Primus isn't even a member of Congress.

With his gray hair, reading glasses and expansive lap -- perfect for story time -- Primus, the top policy adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is as tenacious and cunning under the surface as he is grandfatherly and polite.

As Pelosi's point man during the epic health-care effort, Primus routinely clashed with Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. When Primus orchestrated a meeting at the height of negotiations, to challenge the White House's position on Medicare payments to doctors, "Rahmbo" went quintessentially ballistic.

"Rahm was fit to be tied," said Primus, with a hint of pride at his own chutzpah. "He did not like to be called on the carpet."

Their conflict was such that, according to one House Democratic leadership aide, Primus -- the liberal stalwart -- and Emanuel, the pragmatic political animal, "couldn't be in the same room together."

Although Primus said he doesn't want to "focus too much on my relationship with Rahm," he had plenty to say about his old pal. None of it too flattering.

During an interview at his cramped office in the speaker's sprawling suite in the Capitol, Primus charged that Emanuel pressed House Democrats to pass a health-care bill before the Massachusetts Senate special election in January.

No way; too much, too fast, Primus told him.

Emanuel then pushed for an incremental approach, Primus said.

"Rahm was making phone calls . . . saying, 'Let's do smaller.' And it didn't work," Primus said. "The speaker was clearly right, and Rahm was wrong."

Emanuel declined to comment for this story.

The tension between the two dates to the Clinton administration, when Emanuel was a top White House policy adviser and Primus, a big cheese at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned in protest over President Bill Clinton's signing of the 1996 welfare reform bill.

"Wendell is not afraid of anybody," said Peter Edelman, who also famously resigned from the Clinton administration to protest the welfare law.

Asked whether he thought Emanuel held a grudge, Edelman said, "Well, what Wendell and I . . . did was something that was totally at odds, totally 100 percent opposite in a very public way, from what the administration was doing -- and Rahm was the quarterback of that."

Primus, who at 63 has achieved senior statesman status through his lofty position in the speaker's office, is respected and well liked by lawmakers for his expert knowledge of budget policy and his quiet doggedness.

"Wendell probably says the fewest words of any person in senior staff and probably says the most," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), a key player in the health-care debate who worked closely with Primus.

Andrews, who counts Emanuel as a close friend, said he "never heard Rahm say, 'Let's go with the smaller bill.' "

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called Primus "indispensable." And he credited Primus in large part for standing up to the "incrementalists" and getting a monumental health-care expansion approved.

"Clearly, the health-care bill would look far different if not for the efforts that Wendell made on behalf of House Democrats and the speaker," Becerra said.

"The Juice" is a regular feature about influential players behind the scenes in Washington.

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