Rahm Emanuel redefines bipartisanship

Obama's chief of staff says the final vote on a bill is not the only yardstick. Presidential outreach and incorporating GOP ideas count, too.

Michael Bonfigli / Special to The Christian Science Monitor
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spoke Thursday, at a Monitor breakfast.

The final legislation on healthcare reform will be bipartisan, though it may not look that way, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Thursday.

"The test of bipartisanship is not just how many Republican votes you have," Mr. Emanuel told reporters at a Monitor breakfast. He laid out three tests of bipartisanship:

• The bill contains bipartisan ideas.

"That is a test the president laid out, and he has said it repeatedly: This will be bipartisan. There will be ideas from both parties and individuals from both parties in the final product," Emanuel said. "Whether Republicans decide to vote for things that they've promoted will be up to them."

• The president has reached out to Republicans.

"For [a bill] to be bipartisan, or appreciated for its bipartisanship, the president has to try," Emanuel said. "As I said after the Recovery Act [economic stimulus bill], everybody said, 'Oh you didn't get Republican votes.' But the American people saw the president trying. They saw the Republicans, implicit, instinctually and reflexively just rejecting any effort in the height of an economic recession as severe as the Depression."

• The final vote count.

"Then you'll get into the measurements that we have – 'Oh, you didn't get this many,' " Emanuel said.

Emanuel bemoaned the end of an era in which members of the opposition were willing to work with the party in power to pass major legislation. Specifically, looking back to the last big effort on health reform, in 1993 and '94, when Emanuel was a top adviser in the Clinton White House, he remembered the late Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, who worked with Clinton's team to fashion a compromise. At one point, Emanuel said, Senator Chafee brought along 32 or 33 Republican votes, but the effort failed.

There are no more Chafees, Emanuel said. "The Republican Party doesn't have that voice anymore. It makes the quote unquote vote-counting and bean-counting part of bipartisanship hard. But that doesn't mean we failed. It means those who have defended the status quo have failed."

Emanuel seemed almost incredulous at the fate of the Republican Party, which has gone from controlling the White House and both houses of Congress to controlling nothing in just a few years. Both the 2006 and 2008 elections were "national elections" – that is, broad repudiations of the party in power, sweeping some usually safe members out of their seats. Two national elections in a row happen rarely.

"Today," Emanuel said, "they're lower than '06 and '08. That doesn't happen."

The GOP, he added, has gone from being a national party to a regional party, "and that regional party does not represent a national breadth."

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