The Speaker shares President Obama's priorities - but still faces challenges in keeping her caucus in line
By Edward Epstein
Nancy Pelosi spent most of her first two years in charge of the House berating an unpopular president from the opposing party while trying to keep her modest majority unified in staving off his lame-duck round of legislative priorities. Three months into her second term as Speaker, the job description she's developed for herself is profoundly different: holding a bigger collection of Democrats together behind the size and scope of a popular president's ambitious agenda while acting as his cheerleader in chief at the Capitol.
So far, the work has been relatively easy. The new president's domestic aspirations match Pelosi's own, so her ability to tout his virtues comes naturally. “There's a vision. He has a great intellect. He is a strategic thinker,” she said during a recent interview in her office. “And he's so eloquent, he can engage in conversation with the American people. It's a joy to work with him, including the fact that he's a Democrat.”
For all that initial exuberance, though, Pelosi is approaching a wave of challenges that will help define not only her own speakership, but also the Obama administration's success: On health care, climate change, energy policy and education, she will be pressed hard to scale back the more liberal aspirations she and Obama share in order to advance legislation that keeps the more conservative members of her caucus in the fold.
Pelosi readily navigated the year's first such challenge. The economic stimulus package enacted last month did not boost spending as much as Obama and Pelosi would have liked for cherished liberal priorities such as food stamps and school funding, and it included $100 billion in tax cuts they could have done without. But only one liberal and six conservative Democrats opposed the measure in the end. And last week, liberal and conservative Democrats on the House Budget Committee all voted for a fiscal 2010 budget blueprint that Obama hailed as preserving his priorities even though it was shaved back $120 billion (out of $3.67 trillion) from what he'd proposed.
In the afterglow of the inauguration, with recession far and away the leading concern of lawmakers and voters alike, it may be relatively easy to rationalize policy trade-offs in the service of anything that might aid a turnaround. Even so, Pelosi has so far had a much easier time holding her troops together than her counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has much less power to corral the moderates who might want to bolt from the president's more expensive ideas.
Even though at the moment they number 22 more than they did last fall, House Democrats so far this year have voted with their party's majority an average of 93 percent of the time -- a notch higher, in fact, than their record-setting 92 percent party-unity average of the previous two years, when the focus was opposition to George W. Bush.
Standing too closely together, especially in support of a president, can prove risky over the long term, given the peaks and valleys of popular approval for any chief executive. But Pelosi predicts that Obama's popularity will have greater staying power than that of some other presidents who had to race to spend their political capital before it faded away. “Sadly, the attraction to him has been intensified because of the problems our country is facing,” she added.
The Speaker's only clear dispute with the president so far has been on his decision to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq on a longer timetable than he promised in the campaign. “He would say that I wasn't enthusiastic about the withdrawal plan,” said Pelosi, who has faced some intense criticism from her liberal constituency in San Francisco for not pushing her anti-war views more forcefully in the past few years.
Whatever daylight there is between Obama and House Democrats on domestic policy, the Speaker says, surely can be bridged as long as the White House continues to assign lawmakers a very free hand in devising the particulars to carry out Obama's goals. So far, the House committee chairmen say they have been delighted with the amount of latitude they have been given. “I can't foresee a situation where there would be a presidential veto,” Pelosi said. “But I'm not saying we might not have some areas of disagreement.”
After this week's floor debate on the budget, the House will be on a two-week spring recess. After it reconvenes, one challenge the Speaker's allies say they expect for her will be pacing: to not permit her caucus to get so carried away with the legislative opportunities that fatigue sets in and internecine sparring starts bubbling up.
Already, some Democrats are urging that additional measures be added to the House's already ambitious agenda for the spring and summer. Luis V. Gutierrez of Chicago, who has been championing an overhaul of the immigration system for several years, says the time is ripe to revive that debate, even though past splits within the party on the issue have led to an impasse. “Everybody's ready to do their part,” he said, “Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership have the discipline to get it done. I'm very optimistic.”
Indeed, some caucus members caution, ideological divisions won't be the chief point of contention for the caucus in the weeks ahead, but rather the sense that the chamber may be spreading itself too thin.
“The split in the House will be between those who will want to delay because the decisions we are being asked to make are so contentious and those who want to move now,” predicted California's Sam Farr, who counts himself in the “move now” camp.
On the Same Page
One way Pelosi seeks to ensure success for herself and the president is close coordination on message and agenda. Each weekday at 10:00, two of her top communications aides, Brendan Daly and Nadeam Elshami, pick up phones in their Capitol offices and are connected to White House Communications Director Ellen Moran. (The leaders of Reid's communications team, Jim Manley and Rodell Mollineau, join in as well.) The Speaker's chief of staff, John Lawrence, checks in on a near-daily basis with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was one of Pelosi's top advisers when he was in the House. Lawrence also talks frequently with his former House leadership staff colleague Phil Schiliro, now Obama's legislative liaison.
The result of all the consultation has been coordinated message delivery. When Obama signed the omnibus bill featuring $410 billion in discretionary spending this month, for example, he simultaneously announced his plans for new procedural changes to make the earmarking process more transparent; House Democratic leaders announced their support for such changes just before Obama's remarks.
Toward Top-Down Consensus
That kind of smooth stage management obviously isn't going to happen all the time among the various factions within the House Democratic Caucus. Indeed, Pelosi says that for all the shifts in her attitude toward the White House, her operating style is the same as it was during her first term as Speaker. She's just tending to the same basic political divisions within a bigger majority. She still, for instance, has regular weekly breakfasts with freshman members, and she's keenly attuned to the political needs of Democrats who represent areas that vote Republican at the top of the ballot. And she wants to ensure that the vast majority of fiscally conservative “Blue Dogs” continue to remain in line while not touching off ill will among the caucus's liberal wing.
“We build consensus to begin with,” she said. “We don't go in and say, ‘Here's the proposal -- now who's on board?' We have a great deal of discussion on issues.”
But consensus isn't the same thing as open participation. Pelosi relishes making her mandates known far and wide among the rank and file -- and readily thrusts her leadership team and cadre of committee chairmen into the role of legislative field marshals. The deliberative process is “often top-down,” said second-termer Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who attends some leadership meetings as a Judiciary subcommittee chairman. “But those are the people with the experience. You can learn from them, and they can write the bills.”
Still, veteran GOP lawmakers caution that too much consensus can be a bad thing -- especially when Congress falls too sharply into line with an administration's agenda. “I think you can argue that our leadership was too close to President Bush,” said Roy Blunt, who was the House GOP whip last year (and is now distancing himself from the former president as he starts running for the Senate in Missouri). “One of our mistakes that harmed our majority and President Bush was not being willing to have more veto fights with him.”
House Democrats so far aren't thinking about the sobering precedent of how Pelosi's predecessor, Illinois Republican J. Dennis Hastert, presided over his ranks from majority to minority status. For now, they say, the political calculation is simple: “The bigger House majority rode in on Obama's coattails,” Farr said. “As long as he is delivering, we'll remain united.” And that, too, seems to be a key reason Pelosi can sound so upbeat in characterizing the effort to navigate her caucus through a historic economic crisis. “It's fun,” she said. “It's complicated -- and a challenge.”