At Breakfast, a Side of Political Sausage-Making

Rahm Emanuel, right, listens at a Wednesday news conference. Yesterday, it was his turn to talk.
Rahm Emanuel, right, listens at a Wednesday news conference. Yesterday, it was his turn to talk. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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Friday, June 26, 2009

For a disciplinarian, Rahm Emanuel was remarkably loose as he sat down to breakfast at the St. Regis hotel yesterday.

On South Carolina's adulterous governor, Mark Sanford: "There's a guy that needed a cigarette."

On talking with his mouth full: "If this was more of a Jewish family, I'd feel fine."

On the woman he wants to run for Senate in Illinois: "She is the 800-pound gorilla here."

Then there was this unusual aphorism coming from a man who worked in the West Wing when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke: "What happens in the Oval Office stays in the Oval Office."

What made this all the more surprising was that President Obama's chief of staff gave this performance at a table with 40 journalists, their tape recorders running, in an on-the-record forum hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

At one point during Emanuel's free-flowing talk, he was discussing the Republicans' woes when a White House deputy press secretary, seated at a table in the back of the room, abruptly sat up in his seat. "Am I getting that look from you that I'm being too political, Bill?" Emanuel asked. Bill Burton protested that this wasn't the case, but Emanuel went on: "I haven't seen you sit up like that in a long time. You were just worried about where this was going, Bill?"

With Emanuel, who floated the incautious view last year that one should "never allow a crisis to go to waste," it wasn't an unreasonable fear. But he returned his focus to his questioners. "I just looked up and I caught this hairy eyeball by Bill," he said, explaining: "I'm trying to repress my political gene as much as I can."

Impossible. Emanuel could no longer repress his political gene than his need for oxygen -- and that is what makes him particularly good at his job. In his hour with the press yesterday, he made a far more cogent case for Obama's agenda, and how the president can get it enacted, than the guy paid to do that, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Where Gibbs seems to delight in condescension and combat, Emanuel offered a refreshing measure of candor.

On immigration legislation, he admitted that yesterday's meeting at the White House with immigration advocates was "because the votes aren't there" to pass it. "If the votes were there, you wouldn't need to have the meeting, you'd go to a roll call," he said, his legs crossed and his arm draped over the moderator's chair.

He volunteered that Hillary and Bill Clinton made "a big mistake" 15 years ago when they refused to accept a health-care reform measure by Republican Sen. John Chafee (R.I.) that was very close to the first lady's doomed proposal.

And he acknowledged that Obama's dream of bipartisanship may need to be redefined downward. The absence of GOP moderates -- in no small part because Emanuel targeted them when he was running the House Democrats' campaign effort -- "makes getting quote unquote bipartisanship done hard," he said. He proposed that the health-care legislation in Congress could be bipartisan without Republican votes. "This will be bipartisan; there will be ideas from both parties, and individuals from both parties in the final product," he said. "Whether Republicans decide to vote for things they promoted will be up to them."

Emanuel, his hair graying and thinning as he approaches his 50th birthday, took off his jacket and tried to interject wisecracks even before the moderator, Dave Cook, finished his introduction. At the Monitor breakfasts, the guest speakers typically push their plates away to speak; Emanuel ate from his, and occasionally punctuated his remarks with soft burps.

Of course, he provided the requisite spin about his boss's magnificence and his own near-magnificence. ("I exercise every day. . . . I read a book, one every three weeks. I think I'm personally pretty disciplined. This guy is incredibly disciplined.") Obama's speech in Cairo, he said, "did 20 years worth of work. . . . America is no longer the issue in that region of the world."

But the boosterism was tolerable because it came with plenty of talk about the sausage-making of politics, which his colleagues like to pretend they don't pay attention to. Yesterday, Emanuel spoke of the nitty-gritty of passing health-care reform: He talked about "what Chris is doing in his committee" (that would be Sen. Chris Dodd, acting chairman of the Senate health committee) and how, in the House, "all three committees, George's, Charlie's and Henry's, are all working off the same basic text of legislation." That would be Reps. George Miller, Charlie Rangel and Henry Waxman, respectively chairmen of the Education and Labor, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce committees.

He spoke freely about how he pushed Rep. Steve Israel out of a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York. "As a friend, as a former colleague, I told him, 'We're going to be involved in the primary helping her -- make any decision you want,' " Emanuel recounted. Dipping his melon in yogurt, he confided that he aimed to get the financial regulation, energy and health-care bills out of their committees by the fall, and "to wrap those up and get them done by year end."

The hour had come to an end, but Emanuel still had some fruit in front of him. "Can I take my plate with me?" he asked. The president's chief of staff then scooped up a piece of honeydew with his hand and headed for the exit.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company