Massa Drama: Democratic Congressman Muddles Rahm's Message

By Rick Klein

Since everything on health care apparently hasn’t been said yet -- or, at least, hasn’t been said yet by Eric Massa…

The drama gets a voice. And it’s salty.

Massa, the soon-to-be-former Democratic congressman from upstate New York, gets another spin through the news cycle, with a series of interviews on Tuesday that probably won’t be the last we hear of him, if we are to believe his hardly credible word.

Self-contradicting, borderline paranoid ramblings need not necessarily be taken seriously, even when uttered by someone who, until now, held a seat in Congress -- or who was part of Rahm Emanuel’s crop of “Fightin’ Dems” back in 2006. (They got the fighting part right.)

But the difficulty for Democrats is that Massa’s conspiracy theories take on just a whiff of believability after deals so famous that they instantly earned nicknames.

And in Emanuel, Massa is naming a scapegoat who was vulnerable even fully clothed, in a town that’s in a scapegoating mood at the moment. This is a (shower?) curtain the White House didn’t need lifted this week.

Context just might make this bigger than it would otherwise be: “Conservatives have complained about other examples of what they see as illegitimate deal-making to secure votes: what they call the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’ and the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ in the Senate to line up Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), respectively, and Obama's appointment last week of a Utah professor -- the brother of Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), an opponent of the health bill -- to the federal appeals bench,” Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post.

“He is an individual who would sell his mother to get a vote,” Massa said of the White House chief of staff, which takes on more meaning you realize that he also called Rahm “the son of the devil’s spawn.”

Tuesday brings Massa appearances on Glenn Beck and Larry King. Not that he’s prone to say anything surprising...

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” Tuesday: “I think this whole story is ridiculous. I think the latest excuse is silly and ridiculous. ... We’re focused not on crazy allegations, but instead of making this system work for the American people, rather than work for insurance companies.”

(On political fallout of health care: “I don’t think it’s going to cost Democrats the House. I think this will be an accomplishment that members can be proud of, not just in this election, George, but in decades to come,” Gibbs said.)

(And on the Rahm/Axe stories: “The president has confidence in each and every person who works here,” Gibbs said. “The president is not focused on palace intrigue. It says something about this town that this goes for entertainment.”)

ABC’s Jonathan Karl, on “GMA” Tuesday: “These allegations from a fellow Democrat are coming just as the president is launching his final push for health care reform.”

Who wants to dance with this guy? “Meet Eric Massa, conservative media hero,” Politico’s John Bresnahan writes. “The New York Democrat’s weekend radio rant against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has his star rising on the right even as he resigns from Congress under an ethical cloud.”

And who wants one of these? “Whether Massa’s claim has credence adds to the political drama that has engulfed New York the past week. New Yorkers can only hope to learn who is telling the unadulterated truth over time,” the Rochester Democrat and Gazette editorial reads. “The stage has been set for another national referendum on President Obama’s administration and health care reform, again in upstate New York.”

Raymond Hernandez, in The New York Times: “Republicans in the district outnumber Democrats by more than 45,000. Gov. David A. Paterson could call a special election for the seat as soon as next month, although he could also let it remain vacant until the November election.”

And it’s already a Rahm week -- and weekend.

Peter Baker, in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine: “The stupid season has arrived for Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel, the unlikely tandem of inspirational leader and legislative mechanic that was supposed to enact the most expansive domestic program since the Great Society.”

“After the debacle in Massachusetts that cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, Washington has engaged in a favorite exercise, conducting the autopsy before the body is actually dead. How had it come to this? How did the president’s legislative drive drag on for so long that the surprise loss of a Senate seat could unravel it? Did Obama make a mistake by disregarding his top adviser’s counsel? Or was it Emanuel who failed to execute the president’s strategy? Was it both, or perhaps neither?”

All of which obscures a revitalized White House effort on health care:

“I'm kind of fired up,” the president said Monday at his health care rally (and it sounded better when said then when read). “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

“At times it sounded like the president was back on the 2008 campaign trail as he addressed the raucous crowd of about 1800 here in the perennially politically critical suburbs of Philadelphia,” ABC’s Karen Travers reports.

“President Obama turned up his vintage campaign-style fire Monday to rip Republicans and insurers for obstructing health care reform,” Ken Bazinet reports in the New York Daily News. “The Congressional Budget Office, meanwhile, is crunching the cost of Obama's revamped health care plan, a source said. Once that ‘score’ is released, House leaders can schedule a floor vote.”

Even more 2008 than 2008: “The messages are part of a strategy that Obama and those around him have begun to employ lately, to ratchet up the pace and the populist appeal of their rhetoric against the health insurance industry. The barbed tone moves far beyond that of the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama began to say that medical coverage should be accessible and affordable for more Americans,” The Washington Post’s Amy Goldstein and Scott Wilson report.

Taking a meme and rewriting it: “Mr. Obama jettisoned the professorial demeanor that has cloaked many of his public pronouncements on the issue, instead making an emotional pitch for public support as he tries to push the legislation through a final series of votes in Congress in the next several weeks,” The New York Times’ Helene Cooper and David Herszenhorn report.

Wonder why... “Saying he was happy to be out of Washington — in a visit that had him on the ground for only about two hours before he returned to the White House — Obama said the capital had grown obsessed with how a vote on health care legislation would affect the November congressional elections,” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma writes.

Just complicating that effort to blast the insurance companies, just a touch: “The Senate health reform bill, which is the basis for Democrats' last best chance at comprehensive reform, would give the insurance companies millions of new customers required by law to buy health insurance. It would also require insurers to cover everyone, regardless of age, gender or pre-existing condition,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports. “To help pay for the new insurance requirements the government would give to people money to buy insurance -- $336 billion over the next ten years. That money, ultimately, would have to go to... drum roll... insurance companies.”

Do some no’s count more than others? “Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) are firm ‘no’s on the bill, according to their offices,” The Hill’s Bob Cusack and Jeffrey Young report. “Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) are undecided. Meanwhile, Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who supports Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) anti-abortion rights language, is leaning yes, according to his spokesman.”

Two plays: “House Democratic leaders’ ideal solution would be to find enough votes in the Caucus for the Senate bill to offset as many as a dozen Members like Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who vow to oppose it unless abortion language is tightened,” Roll Call’s Steven T. Dennis and Emily Pierce report. “Barring that, they will have to find room for an abortion fix either attached to the reconciliation bill or added to yet another bill that would face an uncertain future in the Senate.”

Stupak, to the AP in Michigan: “I'm more optimistic than I was a week ago.”

And one other play: “At this late stage in the debate, influencing public opinion is no small thing. Obama has elevated healthcare to the top of his domestic agenda and has spent the last year attempting to pass a bill. Yet polls show most people don't like what they have heard about the legislation moving through Congress,” the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Nicholas reports.

Bad timing for this storyline: “Over the past two weeks, Pelosi has faced a series of subtle but significant challenges to her authority -- revolts from Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition and politically vulnerable first- and second-term members,” Politico’s Jonathan Allen reports. “The dynamic stems from an ‘every man for himself’ attitude developing in the Democratic Caucus rather than a loss of respect for Pelosi, according to a senior Democratic aide. But it’s making Pelosi’s life -- and efforts to maintain Democratic unity -- harder.”

In any event -- enough talking: “Lead and the people will -- or will not -- follow. Either way, ram the damn thing, Mr. President. Ram it!” Richard Cohen writes in his column.

Time to be done with it, for other reasons: “Health care reform is important. But what the public has wanted and still badly needs above all else from Mr. Obama and the Democrats are bold efforts to put people back to work,” Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times column. “But while the nation is desperate for jobs, jobs, jobs, the Democrats have spent most of the Obama era chanting health care, health care, health care.”

Coming Tuesday, in the health care wars: “A health insurance industry conference taking place on Tuesday at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., is being targeted by liberal health-care reform advocates,” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports. “The protest, which is being organized by 50 groups including Health Care for America Now, Democracy for America, and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), will begin in Dupont Circle with an 11:00 am ET speech by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean.”

Still talking about that PowerPoint... “fight the smears,” meet “fight the fear.” From the DNC e-mail going out Tuesday: “We'll count on volunteers like you all around the country to let us know at when Republican candidates or groups: * Air misleading ads or offer false claims intended to poison the political debate, * Incite fear of President Obama and Democratic leaders in an attempt to stir up their base, or * Align themselves with the most extreme fringes of the Republican Party. We'll read the responses and call out the most egregious examples to continually expose the GOP's fear tactics. And we'll hit back hard with the truth in ads and organizing against the Republican candidates involved.”

On the president’s schedule: “After his regular round of morning briefings, President Obama will have lunch today with business leaders in the Private Dining Room,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller reports. “The White House says this lunch – as with other meetings with business leaders over the past year, are to look for ways the administration and the business community can work together to grow the economy and create jobs.”

Worth tracking: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is building a large-scale grass-roots political operation that has begun to rival those of the major political parties, funded by record-setting amounts of money raised from corporations and wealthy individuals,” Tom Hamburger reports in the Los Angeles Times.

“The chamber has signed up some 6 million individuals who are not chamber members and has begun asking them to help with lobbying and, soon, with get-out-the-vote efforts in upcoming congressional campaigns. The chamber's expansion into grass-roots organizing -- coupled with a large and growing fundraising apparatus that got a lift from Supreme Court rulings -- is part of a trend in which the traditional parties are losing ground to well-financed and increasingly assertive outside groups,” Hamburger writes.

Annals of immigration reform: “Lawmakers working to craft a new comprehensive immigration bill have settled on a way to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants: a national biometric identification card all American workers would eventually be required to obtain,” The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler writes. “Under the potentially controversial plan still taking shape in the Senate, all legal U.S. workers, including citizens and immigrants, would be issued an ID card with embedded information, such as fingerprints, to tie the card to the worker.”

Moving it along... “Leaders of nearly a dozen grass-roots immigrant rights groups excoriated President Obama and congressional Democrats on Monday, accusing them of moving too slowly to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants and citing a record number of deportations in 2009,” The Washington Post’s N.C. Aizenman and Spencer S. Hsu report.

Coincidence, or convenience? “When the White House announced last week it would be losing the services of Lewis A. Sachs, one of the president's top economic advisers, the reason given for Sachs's departure was that his work was largely complete,” ABC’s Matthew Mosk reports. “But Sachs's quiet exit, reported in a blog entry on the New York Times web site, comes without any apparent next move for the Wall Street veteran, except for what he told the Times was his desire for time to ‘catch up on some sleep.’ Not factoring into the decision, Williams said, were recent reports suggesting Sachs's old employer could be the subject of a federal probe.”

Also Tuesday -- Alexi in town: “Embattled Illinois Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias -- an old Obama ally, but not his preferred candidate -- will be by the White House for Greek Independence Day,” Politico’s Ben Smith reports. “I'm told he's likely to stop in and chat with political aides like Axelrod and Patrick Gaspard, part of a running effort to convince national Democrats not to write the race off.”

The NRSC has some questions: “Considering there’s now a ‘fat cat’ banker who is running for the his former Senate seat and looking to get rewarded for his own banking failures, we will encourage folks to ask the White House: Does President Obama stand by Giannoulias’ candidacy, and if so, how does he differ from these ‘fat cats’ who the President vehemently condemned?”

In Pennsylvania: “Former congressional aide Mark Critz on Monday won the Democratic nomination for the special election to succeed his former boss, the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Johnstown,” the Pittsburg Post-Gazette’s Dennis B. Roddy reports. “Members of the 50-member executive committee of the state Democratic Party selected Mr. Critz two days after he won a non-binding preference vote by delegates to a special meeting held to gauge party sentiment on who should replace Mr. Murtha, who died Feb. 8 after 36 years in office.”

In New York: “New York Republican Rick Lazio's lackluster gubernatorial campaign has propelled some members of his own party to court a Democrat to switch sides and lead the charge against likely Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo this fall,” Michael Howard Saul writes for The Wall Street Journal. “Top Republican officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy in Albany, signaling a lack of confidence in Mr. Lazio's low-buzz campaign and his anemic fund raising.”

And an Obama no-show -- but a pretty good replacement: “Former President Bill Clinton will pinch hit for President Obama at the March 20 Gridiron Club and Foundation spring dinner,” Lynn Sweet reports. “Clinton will substitute for Obama because Obama and First Lady Michelle will be on a swing to Indonesia, Guam and Australia in March. The club marks its 125th annual dinner this year.”

The Kicker:

“Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?” -- Former Rep. Eric Massa, on a confrontation he said he had with Rahm Emanuel, making good on his pledge to not go quietly.

“You've got to smile more... or people are going to think you're angry.” -- Rahm Emanuel, to Eric Massa, in 2006.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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