Nancy Pelosi's brutal reality check

March 1, 2010

Asked this weekend to grade her performance as speaker, Nancy Pelosi gave herself an “A for effort.”

But Pelosi knows that the real test is still to come.

Pelosi is inarguably one of the strongest speakers in modern history — an authoritarian figure in an era of centralized power in the House. But the coming months are a make-or-break period for her, a brutal reality check of her ability to manage all aspects of her job — consensus-building, agenda-setting, vote-counting, fundraising and campaigning.

Now in her fourth year as speaker and eighth overall as the top Democrat in the House, Pelosi has never faced such a daunting set of challenges:

Health care: Pelosi and other top House Democrats say publicly that they have the votes to push through a comprehensive package, but privately, they know they don’t. Pelosi must balance the diverging interests of her own members while simultaneously satisfying Senate Democrats and working with President Barack Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former House colleague with whom she has an uneasy relationship.

The voters: The electoral winds that were at Pelosi’s back in the past two cycles thanks to having George W. Bush in the White House are blowing this year in Democrats’ faces. Prognosticators both inside and outside the party are laying odds on an outcome that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: a GOP takeover of the House.

Democratic infighting: The factions that make up the House Democratic majority, from the conservative Blue Dog Coalition to the liberal Progressive Caucus, are increasingly willing to fight for their own priorities at the risk of party unity. That dynamic was evident last week when a simple $15 billion jobs bill was punted from the floor schedule over a series of Goldilocks-like objections about too little spending, too much spending and misdirected spending.

Brutal campaigning: Pelosi faces a tough year on the fundraising circuit, with a punishing travel schedule and hard environment in which to raise money. She’s collected $18.5 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — with a goal of $25 million for the election cycle — and $3.6 million for vulnerable Democratic incumbents and challengers. But hints of GOP victory in the fall could to make it more difficult for her to raise money from Corporate America and K Street.

Loss of allies: Pelosi suffered a tremendous personal loss with the death of her friend and her most influential ally in the House, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha. Another of Pelosi’s powerful colleagues, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, has seen his influence diminished by ethical problems — including an admonishment last week by theHouse ethics committee.

The “bullet in the head” factor: Pelosi insists she will fight for every Democratic seat this November. But as Election Day draws nearer, Pelosi will most likely have to make tough calls on which vulnerable Democratic candidates to help and which ones to cut loose. Those choices would cause conflict in her caucus and could threaten the Democratic majority if she picks poorly.

Internal polls look bad for the Democrats, and Charlie Cook has warned that the party may lose its majority in November.

But in an interview over the weekend, Pelosi said unequivocally that the Democrats will hold on to their majority in November.

“I’m not yielding one grain of sand; we’re fighting for every seat,” the speaker said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Pelosi’s supporters point to her past successes as a sign that she’ll succeed again this year, despite all the obstacles and the gloom and doom.

“It is fair to say that we are seeing a confluence of some of the most challenging issues in one of the most challenging times,” said California Rep. Xavier Becerra, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. “Is she up to it? Look at the record. She is.”

“Do I agree that she has a very tough job? Yes,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee. “Sometimes the job is more fun than other times. This isn’t one of those times. But she’s tough, and I don’t see any signs of her wilting.”

Pelosi galvanized and energized a moribund Democratic Caucus to build the foundation for overturning the GOP majority in 2006 and followed it up with a freshman term as speaker that laid the groundwork for another big Election Day victory two years later.

And even as Obama, Emanuel and Reid have struggled to execute the Democratic agenda, she has delivered on her end of the bargain, winning House approval of a health care bill, a climate change bill and a jobs bill.

“[In] the House of Representatives, my mark is the mark of our members. We have passed every piece of legislation that is part of the Obama agenda. Whether it’s the creation of jobs, expanding access to health care, creating new green jobs for the future, regulatory reform, we have passed the full agenda,” Pelosi said over the weekend on ABC’s “This Week.”

Still, those victories have come at a cost — leaving Democrats in more conservative districts exposed and some others bristling over the “Pelosi style.”

“She doesn’t delegate,” said one House Democrat close to the speaker. “It’s her biggest flaw. She has to have her hand in every decision.”

That means there’s no one else to blame for Democratic setbacks other than Pelosi, and she will have to answer if the party suffers at the polls.

A corollary to that complaint is that Pelosi has dealt with House Republicans’ penchant for short-circuiting the legislative process by writing key bills in partisan fashion behind closed doors.

That, according to one senior lawmaker, hurts Democrats’ chances of enacting laws that are acceptable to the public — and it takes committee chairmen and rank-and-file members of both parties out of the legislative process.

“There are instances in which regular order is not being followed,” the Democratic lawmaker complained.

Pelosi, who can be as loyal as they come if you’re her friend, can also be ruthless as a political enemy — especially if someone threatens her party’s majority.

Pelosi “will put a bullet in the head of anyone she needs to,” said a Democratic insider. “Rangel, any incumbent that looks like he’s going to lose. She’ll do anything it takes to keep her majority, anything.”


While Democrats are concerned about their poll numbers, interviews with a broad swath of Democratic members reveal little sense of panic — and some confidence that Pelosi and the party will navigate a choppy stretch ahead and retain their majority in November.

“Pressure always comes with that job,” said Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), a Pelosi ally. “There are many of us who think she takes on too much on her own, because we don’t want her to burn out. I’m one of the hardest-working people I know, and she makes me look like a laggard. I tell you, I think she’ll be fine.”
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