Emanuel: Congress, Bush Must Seek the 'Doable'

President Bush's State of the Union speech is expected to highlight many programs and bills he wants to see passed this year. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, a House Democratic leader, talks about what might be accomplished in an election year.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It can be easy to forget given the amount of attention paid to the presidential candidates, but we do have a sitting president and he gives his final State of the Union speech tonight. Whatever President Bush proposes in his final year, he will have to work with Congress to pass it. So this morning, we've called one of the Democratic leaders in Congress, Rahm Emanuel - a member of his party's leadership in the House.

Good morning, sir.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine. Thank you very much.

What is one thing besides an economic stimulus that you can imagine Democrats working with the president on in the coming year?

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, I mean, one other issue on the domestic side is he has, obviously, a vested interest and commitment, as others do, in the Leave No Child Behind program. He wants to see it reauthorized before his presidency goes.

Democrats are adamant - obviously, we see some reforms that are needed. But more importantly, we pushed hard up against his veto for 10 million children's health care. And he said no to that.

INSKEEP: Although that sounds like another issue where you're not going to be likely to be able to…

Rep. EMANUEL: I don't know, Steve. I think that, you know, election years also have - given it's his final year and his desire - election years have an ability to focus the mind on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

INSKEEP: Given the economic conditions, does the president have a chance to extend his tax cuts from 2001?

Rep. EMANUEL: No.

INSKEEP: It will not come up for a vote in the House?

Rep. EMANUEL: Listen. He left us and left this country with $4 trillion in new debt after being handed off a surplus. But we were adamant in negotiations about - on the stimulus, that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts would not be even discussed as being made permanent. And that's something the next president and the next Congress will decide.

INSKEEP: Do you see any chance that Congress could pass a law on another of the president's signature issues, immigration in 2008?

Rep. EMANUEL: There is always a possibility you can make some progress on immigration. I think the more likelihood - and I've discussed this with the president - is, look, there's been three attempts at kind of the total comprehensive immigration reform - three failures.

So therefore, I think the right thing to do is take a look at what are the pieces that can work in a more salable - given you also have a presidential and congressional election - I think something that is you take the pieces out that are most salable, that you can get done. But the notion that you're going to put together a comprehensive reform given three attempts have failed, I think, it's a little - there's a lot of headwind to that.

INSKEEP: Approach it like health care then, get little pieces passed?

Rep. EMANUEL: As I said - I think 10 million children is a big deal. But exactly, look at what's doable and attack it.

INSKEEP: Are you disappointed that Democrats spent so much time on Iraq in 2007, since the last State of the Union speech, and didn't get that passed and perhaps didn't get other things passed that you'd like?

Rep. EMANUEL: Well, I'm not disappointed. I think, you know, we're in a situation where we have spent, you know, 4,000 lives, four and a half years, longer than World War II, a half a trillion dollars, and you find all these other international challenges mounting and America is sidetracked in a situation and caught in a civil war. I think it's the right thing to do. I wish we had gotten more cooperation.

We could have started the year, to tell you the truth, on a bipartisan note -all of us, from the leadership level, endorsed the Baker-Hamilton approach. It was immediately rejected from the White House. And so what could have been -started off on a very consensual approach and a new approach right after the election, I think, ended up - unfortunately, it wasn't. The president of the United States is adamant there'd be no timeline, no benchmarks to measure whether we're making political process.

From day one, we went into that war without a political strategy. Four and a half years into it, we still don't…

INSKEEP: Let me stop you right there, Congressman, I want to ask you one other quick question then I got to move on. And that question has to do with the presidential campaign. As you know, Barack Obama won South Carolina handily over the weekend, over Hillary Clinton.

Rep. EMANUEL: Yes.

INSKEEP: You told your hometown newspaper, when asked about your endorsement in that, that you're hiding under the desk.

Rep. EMANUEL: I built a bigger desk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You're still not endorsing anyone.

Rep. EMANUEL: See we have two very good candidates, and they're both very good friends of mine. And there's no - I'm not one for endorsements in this area. I like both candidates a great deal.

INSKEEP: Do they risk dividing their party, particularly Bill Clinton, the way that he is…

Rep. EMANUEL: You know, everybody, yeah, obviously I'm not only watching this, I'm keenly interested. But first of all, let's take a step back. This is not the type of division that you had between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam. This is not the division that you had when President Carter was challenged in the primary by Ted Kennedy. You know, it's been a little bit of a rough patch. I've been clear about what I think about that, but everybody should just take a step back. This is not even this kind of division that existed between Senator McCain and George Bush in 2000. It's been rough. It's been a rough week. But the fact is, the differences are not large in the sense that they not only endanger our chances in November but that somehow this is insurmountable.

INSKEEP: Congressman Emanuel, thanks very much.

Rep. EMANUEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Rahm Emanuel, a member of the House Democratic leadership.

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