WASHINGTON — Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose nomination to become ambassador to Japan has angered liberal activists, has clinched the votes of at least three Republican senators, giving him an important buffer against possible Democratic defections and boosting his chances of winning confirmation in the evenly divided Senate.
Emanuel, who has held powerful positions in government for three decades, is waging an aggressive behind-the-scenes effort to secure votes from Democrats and Republicans, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Among his earliest coups are Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of former President Donald Trump; Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the fourth-ranking GOP senator, who has opted not to seek reelection next year; and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a centrist fresh off winning a fifth term.
“I haven’t used the word ‘diplomatic’ in a sentence describing Rahm Emanuel very often,” Blunt said of the nominee, who is known for his brash personality. “But in this case, I think he will meet that standard.”
Blunt said he expects “several Republicans” will join him in voting for Emanuel and added, “In a 50-50 Senate, it doesn’t take a lot of Republicans to get this job done.”
The fight over Emanuel’s nomination offers a fresh glimpse into the nation’s reckoning on race and police violence, given his wrestling with those issues as Chicago mayor. It will also test the power of personal relationships in Congress, given Emanuel’s longtime relations there.
One of Biden’s best-known nominees — having served as a top aide to two presidents, a leader of the House and the mayor of a major city — Emanuel is also among the most controversial. Liberal leaders such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Cori Bush, D-Mo., are opposing his nomination over his handling of the deadly shooting in 2014 of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, by a white police officer.
White House officials are confident of Emanuel’s prospects, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, and the White House has not received private signals from senators expressing concerns about his chances, one of the people said. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.
“President Biden chose Rahm Emanuel to be his ambassador to Japan because he knows that Rahm will bring the experience, the policy chops, the relationships and the work ethic to do an important job with a critical partner country,” deputy White House press secretary Chris Meagher said in a statement.
But Emanuel’s confirmation is not guaranteed. The breakdown of the Senate — 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Harris casting tiebreaking votes — gives individual senators a huge say in Biden’s nominations. So far, no Democratic senators have come out in opposition to Emanuel’s nomination.
The Washington Post contacted the offices of all 100 senators last week to ask if they plan to support Emanuel, in some cases speaking with the lawmakers themselves. Most did not respond or declined to take a position ahead of Emanuel’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has not yet been scheduled.
Among those who did not weigh in were a handful of Democrats whose votes Emanuel’s critics and champions believe could go either way. They include Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has clashed with Emanuel, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another prominent liberal.
Neither of the chamber’s African American Democrats, Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who have been outspoken critics of police violence against people of color, disclosed a position on Emanuel.
At least one Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has suggested that McDonald’s killing could be relevant to his decision. Activists were furious that dashboard-camera video of the shooting was not released until 13 months after McDonald’s death; Emanuel attributed the delay to an ongoing federal probe, but critics accused him of playing politics.
“I have heard from Oregonians who are concerned about certain aspects of Mr. Emanuel’s record during his tenure as Chicago’s mayor, in particular his administration’s response to the tragic shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald,” Merkley wrote in a response to constituents before Emanuel’s nomination.
Notably silent so far has been Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who, together with Emanuel, led the Democratic takeover of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Schumer is up for reelection next year in a liberal state where Ocasio-Cortez has not ruled out a primary challenge to him.
Although Emanuel has clashed with the left on various domestic issues, it’s not yet clear how that will factor into his pursuit of a foreign policy job. One Senate Democratic aide said they know a half-dozen Democratic senators who would like to give Emanuel “some heartache,” but might not want to embarrass Biden.
Several Senate Democrats have already publicly declared support for Emanuel, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, a longtime friend. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have also pledged to vote for him. All are either centrists or have long-standing relationships with Emanuel.
“Rahm is a proven leader with the experience to successfully strengthen our close relationship with the people of Japan and effectively advance America’s interests in the region,” Tester said in a statement.
Ocasio-Cortez disagrees. “This nomination is deeply shameful,” she said in a statement this month. “As mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald — a mere teenager when he was shot 16 times in the back by a Chicago police officer.”
Bush and Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., released a statement saying, “As Black Americans, we find the Biden Administration’s decision to nominate him not only professionally and politically indefensible, but personally offensive.”
RootsAction, a liberal advocacy organization, spearheaded a coalition of nearly two dozen national activist groups to campaign against Emanuel’s nomination. Jeff Cohen, co-founder of the organization, said it has not put money behind the campaign yet, though members have discussed investing in advertising.
Emanuel’s career is almost uniquely entwined with the modern Democratic Party. He worked as a young campaign staffer for Bill Clinton, helping propel him to the presidency with his fundraising, then joined the Clinton White House to push through NAFTA and other major initiatives.
Returning to Chicago, Emanuel won a congressional seat and spearheaded Democrats’ 2006 takeover of the House. He left Congress to become President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, serving in that position for two years before running for Chicago mayor.
Along the way, Emanuel cemented a reputation as an aggressive leader of the party’s centrist, pragmatic wing, earning the enmity of many on the left, who see him as too close to business. But he also formed a wide network of close relationships with Democrats he had worked with or helped win.
That network is now paying off. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is supporting Emanuel, as are House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat and a prominent African American leader.
“I worked closely with him in Congress and when he served as Chief of Staff to President Obama,” Clyburn tweeted last month. “He has the experience necessary to advance our country’s strategic objectives.”
Democrats have long been divided over Emanuel, who has a reputation as a bare-knuckles political brawler and who has not been shy about criticizing some liberal ideas, for example labeling Medicare-for-all a “pipe dream” in a 2019 Washington Post column.
As Biden finalized his key ambassadorial picks, Emanuel emphasized to administration officials that he could get Republicans to support his confirmation, according to a person familiar with the process. He has known many GOP senators for years and interacted with them frequently when he was in the House and later as Obama’s chief of staff.
With three Republican senators coming out in support of Emanuel, he can now afford to lose three Democratic senators — even more if he adds more GOP supporters.
“I think he’ll be a good ambassador for us in Japan,” Graham said in an interview. “I’ve known him for years and have a lot of respect for him. We have different political philosophies, but I think he’s well-qualified for the job.”
Collins, who has also known Emanuel for a long time, said Biden made an “excellent” choice.
Other Republicans may eventually join them. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who served as ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration, congratulated Emanuel on his nomination, though a Hagerty spokesman said the senator will not decide how to vote until after Emanuel’s hearing.
Still, the majority of Republicans are expected to vote against Emanuel’s confirmation, and some GOP senators with national profiles have already pledged to vote against him.
“President Biden is doubling down on American decline by nominating the mayor that accelerated Chicago’s decline,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a statement.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), widely seen as a potential candidate for president in 2024, also plans to oppose Emanuel, according to his office.
Biden has so far been forced to withdraw two high-profile nominations: Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management and Budget and David Chipman for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Both faced unified opposition from Republicans and pulled out when it became clear they couldn’t count on all Senate Democrats.
Biden’s team considered Emanuel for other, higher-profile posts that might have prompted a more bruising nomination fight, according to people familiar with the process. In tapping him instead to be the top U.S. diplomat in Japan, Biden followed a tradition of selecting marquee figures for the job — such as former Vice President Walter Mondale and Caroline Kennedy — but also avoided putting Emanuel in a domestic policy role.
The pick in part reflects the generally positive impression Emanuel left on Biden when they worked together in the Obama White House, according to one of the people with knowledge of the situation.
“The president knows Rahm and has confidence in him,” said Meagher.