Congressional Democrats point finger of blame at Rahm Emanuel on healthcare

Democrats in Congress are holding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel accountable for his part in the collapse of healthcare reform.

The emerging consensus among critics in both chambers is that Emanuel’s lack of Senate experience slowed President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

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The share of the blame comes as cracks are beginning to show in Emanuel’s once-impregnable political armor. Last week he had to apologize after a report surfaced that he called liberal groups “retarded” in a private meeting.

While Emanuel has quelled that controversy by meeting with advocates for people with disabilities, on Capitol Hill he’s under fire for poor execution of the president’s healthcare agenda in the Senate.

"I think Rahm ran the play his boss called; once Obama called the play, Rahm did everything he could to pass it, scorched-earth and all that,” said a senior lawmaker, who added that Emanuel didn’t seek a broader base of Senate Republicans. “I think he did miscalculate the Senate. He did what he thought he had to do to win."

Senate Democrats grilled White House advisers last week during a special Senate Democratic retreat, expressing frustration over the lack of a clear plan.

While Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) ripped chief political strategist David Axelrod, Senate Democrats say Emanuel, who was more closely involved in managing negotiations in Congress, also deserves scrutiny.

No Democrat is calling for Emanuel’s resignation, even privately, and they acknowledge his hard work and straightforward approach in a very tough job.

They also say there’s plenty of blame on healthcare to go around.

But centrists and liberal Democrats both take issue — albeit in different ways — with how he approached the Senate.

“I like Rahm; he's always been a straight shooter with me," said a Democratic centrist senator who was closely involved in the healthcare debate.

The lawmaker said Emanuel misjudged the Senate by focusing on only a few Republicans, citing Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as too narrow a pool.

“In the Senate, you have to anchor in the middle and build out," said the lawmaker.

“They just wanted to win," the source said of Emanuel and other White House strategists. "Their plan was to keep all the Democrats together and work like hell to get Snowe and Collins. The Senate doesn't work that way. You need a radius of 10 to 12 from the other side if you're going to have a shot."

But liberals take a different view. They argue Emanuel made a mistake by allowing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to spend months negotiating with Republicans on his committee, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa).

“I’m most critical of the fact that the Senate [Democratic] leadership and, I assume, the White House tried to get a deal with people like Grassley, which was impossible and wasted a huge amount of time,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group.

One senior Democratic senator said Emanuel was initially reluctant to push healthcare reform so early in Obama’s first term, counseling instead for the president to focus on jobs and the economy

But the president decided healthcare had to pass when he had a strong political mandate and the party controlled large majorities in both chambers.

Obama was convinced overhauling the nation’s healthcare system would boost the struggling economy by curbing costs and reducing the long-term federal deficit, say Democratic sources.

An administration official, however, disputed the notion that Emanuel disagreed with the president’s timeline on healthcare.

Emanuel declined to be interviewed for this article.

Once Obama decided to make healthcare the top priority, Emanuel approached it with his signature hard-charging style. That did not sit well in the Senate, according to Democratic senators and House members.

A liberal House Democrat who served with Emanuel during his entire career in Congress said: "I don't think the skills that are attributed to him — muscling things through — are well-suited to the Senate.

"The House is like an Australian-rules rugby match,” the lawmaker added. “The Senate is like a march at a men’s club in imperial Britain. They're a bunch of barons over there."

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Emanuel constantly pressed Senate negotiators to stay on a timeline for passing healthcare reform. Centrist Democrats and Republicans alike complained about “arbitrary” deadlines.

Snowe complained about a rushed process when she announced she would vote against the Senate healthcare bill, even after she supported the Democratic healthcare bill in the Finance Committee.

One liberal Democratic senator said Emanuel has a much better relationship with House Democrats.

The senator said that Emanuel allowed White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, who had worked 15 years for Baucus, to take more of a lead in the upper chamber. The lawmaker said that was a mistake that allowed Baucus more time than necessary to negotiate with Republicans.

Baucus scoffed at the notion that Messina could pressure him.

“He’s not going to put pressure on me,” Baucus told The Washington Post last year during an interview for a profile of Messina.

A liberal healthcare advocate said this management strategy wasted months of time.

“It’s true that Messina was the person the White House relied on to quarterback the Senate strategy. He agreed with the Baucus strategy of going ahead to make this deal [with Republicans] and it did go on too long,” said the advocate.

Some Democrats in Congress also question whether Emanuel scheduled enough time for the president to travel the country to stump for healthcare reform.

“For a guy who talked a lot about not liking the culture of Washington, he spent a lot of time in Washington,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

The aide noted that former President George W. Bush traveled to states and congressional districts he carried on Election Day to pressure Democratic lawmakers to support his agenda. The aide said Obama did not put similar pressure on centrist Republicans.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Obama’s advisers lost touch with the county’s populist sentiment as he became consumed by the challenges of his agenda.

"As a group, overall, I would give them a good grade, but there's something missing there and that's an overall strategy of ‘What are the things we're going to get done and how are we going to work with Congress?’ ” Harkin said of Obama’s circle of advisers.

Harkin said they lacked “a feeling for what’s going on around the country, the populist sentiment.”

Obama’s advisers have since realized this mistake. The president has sounded more populist tones in recent weeks, such as proposing a hefty tax on the bonuses of Wall Street bankers.