President Obama is losing more than a chief of staff. He is also losing perhaps his most important link to Congress and the man most responsible for the administration's legislative victories on Capitol Hill.
Rahm Emanuel's reach was felt across the executive branch as he weighed in on all critical decisions from domestic politics to foreign policy. But nowhere was he more active or more involved than when dealing with Congress. He was the fifth former member of Congress to serve as chief of staff since President Harry Truman created the post in 1946. But none of the other former members were so immersed in thrashing out legislation.
Even though Pete Rouse -- the senior adviser who is expected to be named the interim chief of staff -- has lengthy experience on Capitol Hill, the White House is braced for the loss of Emanuel's clout.
Emanuel, of course, had his critics, particularly among the most liberal members of the Democratic Caucus. They appreciated him when he recruited centrist candidates as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and elected Democrats in many districts formerly owned by Republicans. But they chafed when they felt he watered down legislation to make it more palatable to those centrists.
Sometimes, to the consternation of budget officials, Emanuel was quick to make promises to get votes and leave it to others to find the money.
Perhaps his most expensive pledge was last month when he promised Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas $1.15 billion in farm disaster aid if she would agree to take it out of the small-business bill moving through Congress. As a down payment on that promise, the administration two weeks ago came up with $630 million in disaster aid to farmers, mostly in the South.
A USDA source said that Emanuel did not discuss the aid offer with Agriculture Department officials before making the commitment to Lincoln.
Emanuel was literally in the room brokering the final deal on the stimulus package and was instrumental in healthcare deal-making in the Senate and in brokering House-Senate deals on those bills. He also took personal charge of talking to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on detainee issues.
Few of Emanuel's predecessors ever got involved in such legislative minutiae. And those who tried, most memorably Republican John H. Sununu in the administration of George H.W. Bush, often left angry lawmakers in their path.
An example cited by some members of Congress came during the battle last year to overhaul the financial regulatory system. Rep. John Adler, D-N.J., wanted public companies with a market cap of less than $700 million to be exempt from a provision that required them to establish and maintain internal controls and financial reporting procedures.
The move made sense for the freshman, who occupies a previously GOP-held seat, helping him to build up his bona fides in the business community. But Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank and Capital Markets Subcommittee Chairman Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., opposed the move, siding with consumer activists who argued against Adler.
But Adler knew who to call: Emanuel, who helped Adler win in 2008. Adler revised the bill downward and during the markup announced to his colleagues that he had picked up the White House's endorsement.
"I've spoken to Mr. Emanuel three times in the last five days," Adler said.
"And what seat does he occupy here?" Kanjorski replied, clearly irritated. Despite his objection, the Adler amendment was adopted, allowing Emanuel to give a victory to a vulnerable Democrat but ruffling the feathers of some fellow Democrats along the way.
No one on the White House staff was surprised that Emanuel would spend so much time on a minor provision or with a little-known member.
"The title 'chief of staff' in many ways says it all," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "He has been the energetic, inspirational leader of us, taking the president's promises and agenda and enacting them into law."
Rouse, who was chief of staff for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also is respected on Capitol Hill. And he also is personally close to Obama. "Pete has been with Senator-elect, Senator, President-elect, and now President Obama," said Gibbs. "There's a complete loyalty and trust with somebody like Pete."
After a week of leaks and rampant speculation, one of the few things unknown about Friday's East Room announcement is whether or not the president will formally endorse Emanuel for mayor of Chicago.
He has twice praised Emanuel as someone who would make a "terrific" and "excellent" mayor, but he has stopped short of the embrace he gave two other Democrats involved in party primaries -- Sens. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Michael Bennet in Colorado.
Emanuel's race is a little more complicated. The Feb. 22 vote in Chicago is technically a nonpartisan general election. If no one candidate wins 50 percent plus one in what is expected to be a crowded field, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff in April.
In the last several days, Emanuel has huddled with several Chicago congressional Democrats -- including Reps. Danny Davis, Luis Gutierrez, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Mike Quigley -- to discuss the future of the city and measure their interest in City Hall.
Quigley, who said he is considering entering the race, said that he met Emanuel at a restaurant near the White House, where their discussion centered on tax policy. Quigley said that Emanuel is "one of a handful" of potential candidates worthy of the job.
This article appears in the October 2, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.