You are here

CQ Weekly: Her Key to the House

By Ed Epstein

With a testy, weary House clamoring to start its summer recess, leaders of a sharply divided Democratic Caucus met Aug. 3 to decide whether to accept an extension of the government's powers to eavesdrop in terrorism investigations, which the Senate had just passed before leaving town, or fight on for the civil liberties protections that many liberals were demanding. And congressional Republicans and President Bush, anticipating the Democrats would take the latter course, were revving up their attack: The new party in charge of the House, they said, was willing to coddle terrorism suspects -- a charge that stung for the moderate Democrats who held their seats by close margins.

In the end, it was Nancy Pelosi, who had spoken often and sharply about what she saw as an erosion of civil liberties because of the Bush administration, who decided to try to cut her party's potential losses and ward off such criticism. She shut down the intramural debate, overrode her own liberal allies and announced that the caucus would accept the Senate bill for six months and come back to fight anew in the fall.

'As romantic as it would have been to stay on, it wasn't going to lead anywhere,'' recalled Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, who was at the side of the Speaker of the House when she made the call. 'If she listened to the more passionate members, we could have descended into disunity.''

In the year since the Democrats won control of the House for the first time in a dozen years, Pelosi has made it clear that while she is an activist -- a decisive and partisan Speaker who often gets involved in the nitty-gritty details of legislation -- she also is a pragmatist who is unafraid to disappoint her liberal base in the cause of maintaining or even expanding her party's House majority in 2008 and beyond.

The decision to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allowed her to extract herself and her party from a difficult situation, even though her caucus is still wrestling with Republicans on the issue. She has also tread carefully on questions of taxes, followed a non-activist path on social issues such as gun control and abortion and completely closed down talk of presidential impeachment.

'She has lived down the image of a San Francisco liberal,'' said Florida's Allen Boyd, a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition -- Southern-dominated, fiscally conservative House Democrats who now meet regularly with Pelosi. 'She's a very practical, tough strategist who knows what people can do and what they can't.''

The measure of control she exerts is reflected in almost every question that comes before her caucus, from what to serve at breakfast meetings to how to put together climate change legislation. Her Democratic allies in the House -- and at the moment there are very few in the caucus who don't describe themselves that way -- say they wonder how she maintains this degree of involvement without getting bogged down.

'She's Speaker Houdini,'' said Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. 'She balances everything, all the balls in the air.''

In her 10 months as Speaker, Pelosi has emphasized building and sustaining consensus in a caucus that has a long and storied history of being riven by ideological divisions. To a large degree, she has been successful, her protracted honeymoon helped along by the president's unpopularity and by a relatively disjointed and dispirited state of affairs in the House Republican caucus, which is struggling to find its voice as the minority opposition.

But the formula for her relative success so far doesn't offer much insight into how Pelosi will fare when her leadership inevitably hits sustained rough waters or when committee chairmen and other powerful House Democrats begin to chafe under her strong hand. Nor does it portend how House Democrats will operate, or how Pelosi's own leadership style may evolve, if a fellow Democrat is elected president next year.

And this month, for the first time, her leadership has shown more signs of strain. In three quick days, the Armenian genocide resolution that she ardently supports lost so much of its backing that she pulled it off the debate agenda; the promised Democratic rewrite of the FISA law ran into trouble on several fronts and was delayed; and her public campaign for an override of Bush's veto of children's health insurance legislation came up short.

It was her roughest period since the outset of her speakership, when the dogged loyalty Pelosi gives to her allies and the longstanding grudges she holds against foes -- qualities many describe as her political Achilles' heel -- led her to stick with her friend John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania as her choice for majority leader long after it became clear he would be soundly trounced by her frequent rival Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

Political analysts say challenges from within the Democratic ranks are likely to pose greater problems for the Speaker in the long run than those posed by Republicans, as she risks disappointing liberals who expected the newly empowered Democrats to lean harder to the left in establishing and pushing their party's agenda.

But overall, says David Brady, congressional scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution at StanfordUniversity, her management of her relatively narrow majority in a bitterly partisan environment has been a success. 'All in all, given the narrow majority and the divisions in her party, the Speaker has done a good job of keeping the party together and making modest progress on the Democratic agenda,'' he wrote in a recent paper. 'I would have to give her a B-plus.''

Consensus Driven

Ever since Pelosi was elected Speaker in January, she has put a high priority on the happiness and political success of the 42 House Democratic freshmen. She calls them the 'majority makers'' and invites them to the Speaker's conference room every Wednesday morning. And early on, the 67-year-old Pelosi -- a mother of five, with a seventh grandchild on the way, and a proud chocoholic -- made it clear to the newcomers that she was firmly in charge of every detail of the House's operations: She ordered the menu be changed from crumb cake to chocolate donuts.

'It was a small but striking example of her leadership,'' Paul W. Hodes of New Hampshire, the freshman class president at the time, recalled -- only half in jest. 'She's a strong personality and has very clear ideas.'

On more serious topics, though, Pelosi has made it clear that she is, as Bush once famously described himself, 'the decider.'

Describing her own style, she said in an interview: 'Legislators are more deliberative. When you are the leader, you have to be decisive. It's more intuition than deduction. When you go into such a job you have to have the knowledge you bring with you and that you gain.

'The Speaker has to call the shots at the end of the day. When you have the challenge: Act, so people know you will act,'' Pelosi added.

But before that moment comes -- and to improve the chances that her decisions will be supported by the rank and file -- Pelosi has made a habit of arranging a seemingly non-stop series of meetings with all the party's factions, from the Progressive Caucus, to which she once belonged, on the left to the Blue Dogs on the right.

'We work hard to build consensus in our caucus and then go forward,'' Pelosi said. 'People tell me it's a woman's way, talking and talking until you reach consensus. But I figure you can spend your time trying to get votes or getting consensus first.''

Her approach is evocative of the practices of Pelosi's mentors, two of the other most politically important San Francisco Democrats of the modern era: Willie L. Brown Jr., a former mayor and speaker of the state Assembly, and Phillip Burton, a powerful voice in the House for 19 years until his death in 1983. 'It's all about your caucus. Never, ever, use your power to twist the results so they are favorable only to your district,'' Brown said. 'The Speaker must be empowered at all times to make the call. But you must be sure that your decisions don't cost you and your membership the majority.''

To Xavier Becerra of California, whose political career started as a junior state legislator under Brown and who is now Pelosi's handpicked deputy in the House leadership, the way 'the Speaker has her hands in everything'' is no surprise. 'Brown and Pelosi understand the workings of politics very well -- the passion, steadfastness in values and the understanding of the political psyche in operating a body,' he said. 'They both are also masterful in counting votes.''

But whereas Brown was outspoken and given to braggadocio, Pelosi 'is a softer sell of the fact that, even though she is Speaker, she carries a smaller stick.''

In her Capitol office, Pelosi keeps mementoes of the politicians who have influenced her in addition to her father -- Thomas 'Old Tommy'' D'Alesandro Jr., who spent two decades as a congressman and then mayor of Baltimore -- and her brother, 'Young Tommy,' a Baltimore mayor in the 1960s.

There is a foot-high statue of Burton and a picture of herself as a teenager with Sen. John F. Kennedy, whose presidential inaugural address she can quote from memory. And there is a Waterford crystal gavel that belonged to Thomas P. 'Tip'' O'Neill Jr., which the late Speaker's family gave to Pelosi after her election as minority leader in 2002. 

Pelosi describes O'Neill, who she came to know well when she chaired the California Democratic Party in the 1980s, as her 'hero' among her 51 predecessors as Speaker. Like Pelosi, he was also known for bringing freshmen and other junior members into caucus decision-making and deeply involved himself in the finer points of major legislation or in matters that interested him personally.

'There's an idealism tempered by realism,'' Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, an O'Neill protégé, says in comparing the two Speakers. 'There is also a forcefulness they bring to their causes.''

But Markey and others note that those role models all came from a time when the congressional culture was less partisan and less media driven. They say those changes, along with a president who has pushed to expand the power of the executive branch, have compelled Pelosi to centralize power in her office in the style of her ideological opposite, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican Speaker from 1995 through 1998.

'She's more like Newt. She's partisan and not particularly interested in a bipartisan agenda,'' said congressional historian Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University. 'They have both worked in this era of intense media coverage and partisanship and reflect that and the fact that the parties and voters are polarized.''

But unlike Gingrich, Pelosi was slow to open herself up to the press. Only since the fall has she accepted invitations from the Sunday morning news-talk shows and started holding weekly news conferences. She has even said she's willing to revive a practice, which lasted from O'Neill through Gingrich, of daily meetings with the Capitol press corps when the House is in session.

She says her new willingness to spend time with reporters is not about a loss of reticence, but because she has more time available now that her legislation agenda has started moving and she has her leadership colleagues and her staff operating close to her liking. (Her relationship with Hoyer, for example, has seemed to evolve from frosty to at least businesslike.)

California's Henry A. Waxman, who as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has occasionally chafed at the Speaker's top-down approach, says he's come to share her view that such centralized command is what their diverse caucus needs. 'Otherwise, Democrats would be accountable to voters, but I wouldn't be sure we can deliver,'' he said.

Bypassing Committees

Like both O'Neill and Gingrich, Pelosi has decided to sidestep the committee system and set up an ad hoc group to try to shape an important bill to her liking. Pelosi favors a tough and aggressive approach to curbing climate change; the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, John D. Dingell of Michigan, favors a slower approach that would go easier on the automobile industry central to the economy of his state.

And so in January, Pelosi picked Markey to chair a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which is supposed to recommend, but not actually draft, legislation by the end of the year. Pelosi and Markey led a delegation to Greenland this spring to see evidence of global warming. Since then, the Speaker has repeatedly talked up the select committee's work.

Asked if Pelosi remains 'deeply involved'' in the issue, Markey replied: 'You need several more adjectives to describe how deeply she is involved.'' On other issues, though, she hasn't hesitated to let down the liberal wing of her party.

Gun control and abortion rights have not made it onto the House agenda. A gay-rights bill -- to ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation -- is only now starting to move, and gay-rights advocates oppose it because, at Pelosi's insistence, it has been written more narrowly than they want. And the Speaker quickly and decisively shot down three close allies when they proposed an income tax increase to pay for the Iraq War.

Pelosi aides said she knew in general terms about the surtax proposal before the three -- Murtha, David R. Obey of Wisconsin and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts -- announced it the morning of Oct. 2. Within minutes of the Speaker's return that afternoon from New York, where she appeared at a fundraiser and as a guest on ABC's talk show 'The View,'' her office rejected the idea out of hand.

'It was the shortest-lived trial balloon in congressional history,'' an aide to one of the sponsors of the plan quipped.

Two other proactive moves by Pelosi were clearly designed to help ideologically moderate junior lawmakers, many from districts that tend to vote Republican, survive in 2008 and, as a result, help the party hold the House.

One has been her push for the House to revive 'pay as you go'' rules, which were dropped under Republican control, requiring that tax cuts or increases in mandatory spending be offset by other revenue or spending cuts. The other move was her insistence that House Democrats won't talk about impeaching Bush. She says impeachment would be an all-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking that would only divert Democrats from their core legislative agenda.

That decision has drawn some of the most vocal annoyance so far from the left -- already put out over the inability of the Democratic Congress to clear veto-proof legislation to end the Iraq War -- and helped prompt a long-shot, independent challenge to Pelosi's re-election in California by the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

For the next year, anyway, such pressure from the left will remain her greatest source of tension, as liberal Democrats around the country will be at times unhappy with the congressional majority's inability to overcome Republican filibusters in the Senate and the possible defections of some Democratic moderates in the House, especially in close districts. And if a Democrat wins the White House in 2008, says political scientist Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia, the pressure from the left will grow even more.

But even if Democrats are disappointed with the Congress, Pelosi should have little trouble hanging on to her power. 'What is the base going to do to the first woman Democratic Speaker? Not much. She's an icon, certainly in the Democratic Party and arguably in the entire country.''

Relations With Republicans

In pursuing her legislative agenda, Pelosi has not often actively sought Republican votes. But she touts the fact that some of the Democrats' top goals have attracted a significant numbers of GOP votes. None of the planks of the 'Six for '06'' campaign agenda, which Pelosi pushed through the House at the start of the year, attracted fewer than 24 Republicans.

But House Republicans have taken every opportunity to criticize her style and methods, particularly her centralized leadership. 'She's coalesced a lot of power and ignored some senior members to ramrod legislation,' said Ray LaHood of Illinois. 'In the beginning of a speakership, when you're pushing an agenda, coalescing power in the office will work for a while. But when your members grow disenchanted with you, you don't have the strength to back her.'' 

His prescription for Pelosi: Adopt the coach-like model of her predecessor as Speaker, Republican J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. 'Reach out to members and chairmen, and let them work their will,'' advised LaHood, a close friend of Hastert's.

Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said he views Pelosi's leadership as already running out of steam, with voters upset over the gridlock between the Democratic majority and the president on a host of issues. 'Everything gets harder for them than the day before because they're burning up their capital and not getting results,'' Blunt said.

He also said that Pelosi's efforts to bridge the gap between the factions in her caucus are bound to eventually fail. 'The 'majority makers' have nothing in common with Code Pink and MoveOn.org,'' he said, referring to two of the leaders of the anti-war movement. 'It's just a constant struggle between the two wings of the party.''

Republicans also charge that Pelosi hasn't lived up to her party's promise to operate the House in a more open and democratic manner than the Republicans themselves did. In the 2006 campaign, Democrats pledged that bills 'should generally come to the floor under a procedure that allows open, full and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants the minority the right to offer its alternatives, including a substitute.''

The reality has fallen well short of that ideal. Closed rules, under which no floor amendments may be debated, still proliferate, as do rules severely limiting the minority's right to offer its alternatives or changes. Democrats say that while they have tried to move a heavy legislative agenda, Republicans are trying to use the amendment process to kill bills rather than produce the change Americans voted for last year.

In this atmosphere, partisanship remains the norm on the Rules Committee, which sets the parameters for floor debate and is essentially an arm of the majority leadership.

'I have never said everything was hunky-dory when we were in charge,'' said David Dreier, the California Republican who chaired the committee for the previous eight years. In a report last month, he and the committee's three other current GOP members put the number of closed rules so far this year at 39 percent -- up from 27 percent, by their reckoning, in all of the GOP-run 109th Congress.

'This is the Speaker's Rules Committee,'' Dreier said. 'At the direction of Speaker Pelosi, these actions have taken place.''

But Ron Peters, a congressional scholar at the University of Oklahoma who is studying the Rules Committee process, views things differently. 'To the extent that the Democrats have relied on modified or closed rules, it's well within the range we can expect from a majority party these days,'' Peters said. 'My impression is that the Democrats have, in general, been more permissive than the Republicans were.''

A Break for Vulnerable Freshmen

Beyond such macro-political decisions about her way of operating the House, Pelosi has shown that she will go out of her way to help individual members, freshman Democrats in particular, if she thinks they might be hurt by pending House actions.

Democrat Zack Space, who was elected a year ago in a reliably Republican part of Ohio that had been held by Bob Ney before the Jack Abramoff scandal, recalls importuning Pelosi on the House floor in June soon after the Appropriations Committee voted a deep cut for the Appalachian Regional Commission, an important economic development engine in southeastern Ohio.

Pelosi quickly reached out to the top members of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Democrat Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana and Republican David L. Hobson of Ohio, and in no time Space found himself engaged in a colloquy on the floor with the two appropriators, who promised to try to boost the allocation before their fiscal 2008 bill is finalized.

Space says Pelosi hasn't asked for a thing from him in return. 'She's put absolutely no pressure on me to vote any way,' he said. 'In fact, she encourages me to vote my district.''

But members with more secure holds on their seats tell of being lobbied personally by Pelosi, sometimes repeatedly on a single piece of legislation, as she joins her leadership team in rounding up votes.

Next year's election is a clear focus of Pelosi's. One concern is that public opinion polls show Congress' popularity has sunk considerably since the initial excitement over the Democratic takeover and the election of Pelosi to break what she called 'the marble ceiling'' at the Capitol.

Republicans are already shaping as a campaign theme the notion that the Democrats haven't accomplished all that much. In response, in recent days House Democrats were told by the leadership to circumvent what the Speaker and her team view as an overly critical Washington press corps and instead tout Congress' legislative accomplishments to their local media outlets -- with an emphasis on the times Republicans have thwarted Democratic objectives.

Democrats are also heartened by the polling numbers showing they hold a solid lead when voters are asked which party they'll vote for in next year's congressional elections. And, especially given the spate of recent GOP retirements in competitive districts, at this point almost no one is betting the party will lose control of the House next fall, which would require it to yield 16 seats or more to the GOP.

Pelosi first rose to prominence in California's Democratic Party as a dogged, successful fundraiser. And after two decades in the House, she persists, mixing in several fundraising events weekly for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or for her own campaign coffers, which she fills mainly so they can be tapped to benefit other Democrats. As she regularly tells her caucus at its closed-door meetings, the members must raise an average of $1 million a week to fund the DCCC's effort.

By far, she is the committee's No. 1 fundraiser, even though there are still a good number of members of her caucus who don't particularly want her to appear in their districts -- mainly because she's clearly so much more liberal than their constituents.

As a result, Pelosi says she's optimistic her party will expand its majority a year from now, which would ensure that the first female Speaker in the House's 218-year history serves more than two years. 'We're miles ahead of where we need to be,'' she said.