WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- ebullient, elated, energized and enthused hours after President Obama signed the health-care bill Tuesday -- said that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, contrary to his tough-guy image, is a "softie."
Pelosi discussed her take on Emanuel; the run-up to Sunday's historic House vote on the health measure, and a GOP drive to vilify her during an hour roundtable with 13 columnists -- I was one of them.
Relaxed and running a victory lap, Pelosi ate a few squares from an organic swiss dark chocolate bar during the session around a long table in one of the large meeting rooms in the speaker's suite. There was one portrait in the room -- an oil on canvas of Abraham Lincoln, when the Illinoisan was a member of the House between 1847 and 1849.
I asked her about working with Emanuel, who was part of Pelosi's House leadership team before becoming President Obama's chief of staff.
During the health-care debate, the brash Emanuel became the subject of stories about whether he disagreed with Obama's -- and Pelosi's -- push for a comprehensive plan. Emanuel at one point mapped out a scenario for a less ambitious incremental bill.
But Obama -- praised by Pelosi as "brilliant" -- and Pelosi wanted to go big, and that's the charge that Emanuel led.
"I do know that I love working with him. I always say that he is perceived as this political operative, but he is a very serious policy person," Pelosi said.
She added, "He's really a softie." And she said they can work together fast: "We can speak shorthand to each other."
I asked when she knew she had the 216 votes to pass the bill. Pelosi said she was always confident she had the votes "one way or another" and there never was quite a high-five moment.
Her goal was to get to 216 votes and then some to make it impossible for Republicans to target a vulnerable Democrat as the one who made it happen. Pelosi got 219 votes on the main bill and 220 on the companion reconciliation measure.
In the run-up to Sunday, the vote count changed as different elements came in and out of the bill in negotiations. The last drama was on Sunday, with the Obama executive order stating the bill keeps the Hyde Amendment ban on federal funding for abortion intact -- an appeal to a crucial vote bloc.
"I knew we would have it one way or another depending on how the substance would fall," she said.
"This place is a giant kaleidoscope, and you can turn the dial a little bit, and different colors go into the center design, and then you turn it another way, and different people come in," she said.
On other matters:
• The uproar that started when it was thought the Democrats would try to pass the bill with a tactic called "deem and pass": Pelosi brushed it off as Republicans "making a big whoop-de-do."
• Pelosi said getting the health-care bill passed was not the toughest legislation she had to move.
"Everybody said it must be the hardest thing you've ever done. Not in a chance, because there was so many people doing the heavy lifting," she said. With some must-pass bills, it is "like driving a truck across the continent with your teeth. . . . This one everybody was interested in."
• As Republicans vilify her -- she's featured in all sorts of fiery GOP ads -- Pelosi said "I couldn't care less. "If we weren't effective, they wouldn't be going after us. I've told you that before. I can't even put a measure on it, it's so small. What's lower than a nano-something of interest that I have?"
• On lawsuits being filed against the health-care law by attorneys generals in several states: "Yeah. OK. So what else is new?"
• On Karl Rove's prediction that if Democrats passed health care, they would lose the House in November, Pelosi said, "Yes, and you would wonder why they would stand in the way of it passing then."