From NBC's Mark Murray
Contrasting the differences between what happened in the early 1990s and what's happening now, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- who also worked in Bill Clinton's White House -- was optimistic about passing health-care reform this year. "We are in good shape," he told reporters in an off-camera breakfast meeting.
The first difference, Emanuel said, was that the interest groups that helped defeat health reform in the '90s -- the doctors, the hospitals, the insurers -- are playing a constructive role in the reform. Second, he noted that the three House committees working on the legislation are all on the same page, unlike what happened 15 years ago. And third, he said the Obama administration was allowing Congress to draft the legislation, which didn't happen in the '90s.
Yet in perhaps his most striking comments during the breakfast, Emanuel also observed this difference between now and then: fewer moderate Republicans, like the late Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee, who might be open to helping pass health-care reform. "They are a party that doesn't have Sen. Chafees" anymore," he said answering a question about whether the White House could get 10 or more Senate Republicans to vote for the legislation. "That makes getting bipartisanship done hard." He added that the Republican Party has transformed into a regional party and is seeing its poll numbers decline even after suffering defeats in two consecutive national elections.
Given the dwindling number of GOP moderates, Emanuel urged the reporters in attendance not to judge whether the legislation is bipartisan based on whether how many Republicans vote for it. A better standard, he said, is 1) does it have Republican ideas in it, and 2) has President Obama tried to be bipartisan? All that said, Emanuel expects to get some GOP support, although he wouldn't say how many. "I do believe you'll see bipartisan votes."
Asked about polls showing that Americans want reform but are less certain about changes to their own health care, Emanuel answered that's why Obama continually states that people can keep their health insurance if they like it. He also turned the question on its head: If Americans are wanting reform, then why are opponents defending the status quo?
He also seemed open to Sen. Kent Conrad's (D) idea of a public co-op insurance plan. "Co-op is a fancy way of saying Blue Cross Blue Shield," Emanuel said.
He said that it's "not impossible" to get immigration reform passed this year. But: "I think the most significant thing is to get it started now," so you can move on it later.
When asked whether there were enough votes to pass immigration reform, Emanuel replied, "If the votes were there, you wouldn't have [today's] meeting."
Asked why the White House was backing Kirsten Gillibrand for New York Senate and if was trying to eliminate any primary challenge she might receive, Emanuel said that if people want to run against her, they can. But he said he called Rep. Steve Israel -- whom he considers a friend -- to let him know that the White House would be supporting Gillibrand and would be involved in the race. He denied threatening Israel that Obama would campaign in African-American neighborhoods in New York for Gillibrand and against Israel.
Turning to his home state of Illinois, he said that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan is thinking about running for Obama's old Senate seat. "Lisa is thinking about running," adding that she's the "most popular figure in Illinois." Emanuel said that he met with her and discussed the pros and cons of running for the Senate vs. for governor. He stated that the decision she makes is up to her.
Other odds and ends
Some other interesting comments:
-- Asked to compare Bill Clinton with Obama, Emanuel talked about the more challenging economic and geopolitical climate that Obama faces. He also said Bill had a "creative" mind, while Obama has a "disciplined" mind.
-- He said Obama's recent Cairo speech will go down as one of modern history's most significant speeches on foreign policy. "America is no longer the issue in that [Muslim] world."