Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel, the architects of the Democrats’ historic take-back of Congress in 2006, talk to each other nearly every day in abrupt, Morse code bursts stripped of hellos, goodbyes and thank-yous.
On the surface, everything seems normal.
Schumer, a New York Democratic senator, is pushing a proposal that allows states to opt in to a public option. Emanuel, who left the House to become President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, has backed Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s plan to “trigger” the option if insurers misbehave.
“This isn’t a big ideological division; neither one could care less which public option mechanism is used,” said a Democrat close to both men. “It’s a strategic difference, a political difference, but it’s a big one.”
At the heart of the disagreement is an institutional struggle based on the out-of-sync political calendars of the Senate and White House. Schumer is focused on energizing the liberal Democratic base during the 2010 midterms. Emanuel, like most of Obama’s advisers, is intent on underscoring the president’s commitment to bipartisanship — even if Snowe is the only Republican vote.
Schumer won round one.
At his urging, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) adopted the opt-out strategy over Emanuel’s opposition, recognizing the challenge posed to leadership by progressives and polls showing support for the public option in Nevada.
“Rahm is a House guy,” said a Democratic operative close to both men. “He doesn’t have the juice in the Senate. Most of these senators already have relationships with Obama and don’t need Rahm to be the go-between. ... Maybe Rahm will have that kind of influence this time next year, but he doesn’t have it now.”
But Schumer’s victory may not be a lasting one. Among Senate Democrats, the Snowe-Emanuel trigger option is widely viewed as a fallback position, and it could be revived if Schumer and Reid aren’t able to corral the 60 votes necessary to get their plan passed.
Administration officials have sought to distance Emanuel from the trigger plan, saying that no one in the White House, from Obama on down, has ever been wedded to any approach other than one that will succeed.
And Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon bristled when asked if the two were feuding: “They are even closer than they were when they were at the committees. They are attached at the hip,” he said.
Before Reid’s decision to back the opt-out, Schumer and Emanuel had a long, uncharacteristically calm debate, in which each man presented his arguments, according to people familiar with the situation.
Neither expected to change the other’s mind, in part because Schumer’s focus wasn’t selling Emanuel on the plan but on persuading Reid to accept the controversial opt-out proposal.
Emanuel, expressing the opinion of many others in the White House, believed that getting Snowe would give the bill a bipartisan imprimatur and quickly pave the way to 60. But Schumer, who annoyed some in Reid’s camp by pressuring the leader publicly, argued that backing the trigger would prompt a revolt by liberals in the chamber who want an immediate, un-triggered public option.
During a meeting with Obama and Emanuel at the White House last Thursday, Reid began to talk but quickly deferred to the New York Democrat, who made the same case to Obama that he’d made to Emanuel privately.
Aides say that Emanuel was disappointed by Reid’s decision to back Schumer — but isn’t bitter, isn’t trying to sabotage Schumer and is working hard to pass the opt-out.
Earlier this week, Schumer provided Emanuel with a readout of his talks with senators who remain resistant to the plan.
At the end of the conversation, Emanuel reminded him to follow up with a particularly squeamish senator — to which Schumer replied, “I need to be told that, brother?” according to a person familiar with the conversation.
On the surface, Schumer and Emanuel seem similar — both are brainy, Jewish, occasionally abrasive, beyond-driven overachievers with keen political minds. They respect each other’s political acumen, but they were also openly competitive when Emanuel led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Schumer ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In “The Thumpin’,” Naftali Bendavid’s book on Emanuel’s 2006 exploits, Sean Sweeney — who worked for both Schumer and Emanuel — described their relationship this way: “They are like Batman and Robin, but each one thinks the other is Robin.”
Democratic operatives say they raced against one another to raise more cash and Schumer was delighted he was able to secure six seats to win the majority in ’06 — in part to match Emanuel’s achievement in winning back the House.
“They are productively competitive,” said a former Emanuel staffer. “They make each other better.”
Added another Democrat: “They like each other in a competitive, towel-snapping way.”
But they also got on each other’s nerves.
Emanuel reportedly told Schumer to stop poaching popular House members for Senate runs — and Schumer was incensed when Emanuel unexpectedly stormed out of a meeting after cursing out then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
And several sources said that the fastidious, physically fit Emanuel was grossed out during meetings by Schumer’s none-too-delicate eating habits — which included munching off of other people’s plates, scarfing piles of pizza and leaving carpets covered with fast food.