By Patrick O'Connor
Like a stern but doting mother, Speaker Nancy Pelosi matches a deep devotion to her caucus with a raised-eyebrow reproach for anyone who steps out of line.
That maternal authority has been on full display as Pelosi helps Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. usher President Barack Obama's first budget through the House.
When the House approves its budget resolution Thursday, the speaker's top priorities will be there: health care reform, a climate change bill and increased veterans' funding. She's held onto them by giving ground on issues that aren't as near and dear to her heart, such as farm subsidies and more bailout funding for the banks. All the while, she has balanced her own concerns with those of her caucus and her president on the $3.6 trillion spending blueprint.
“This is a very strong reflection of the president's budget,” Pelosi told POLITICO. “When the president sends his budget, he knows Congress will work its will, and all of this was within the levels of investment that the president wanted.”
For Pelosi, life in the House varies little from life in her house back in San Francisco when she was raising five children: Lots of listening so everyone has the chance to be heard and then an ultimatum to end the bickering.
“She listens, then she acts,” said California Rep. Xavier Becerra, a close ally in the elected leadership and a member of the Budget Committee. “At some point, a mother knows when to move the brood forward.”
On the budget, Pelosi and her leadership team held listening sessions with Democrats of every stripe to let them blow off steam during the month leading up to the vote. The speaker also presided over a late compromise to mollify conservative complaints about the mounting deficit.
The day House budget writers unveiled their blueprint, Pelosi hosted a session with Spratt and other committee Democrats in one of her ornate Capitol conference rooms. In the meeting, moderates, led by Florida Rep. Allen Boyd, were pushing for deeper reductions in nonmilitary spending to take a bigger bite out of the ever-expanding deficit, according to the notes of one attendee.
Before slipping out of the room for a meeting down the hall with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Pelosi delivered a stern warning: Iron out your disagreements, come up with a bill that all Democrats can support, and I'll push the White House on whatever you produce.
Afterward, the speaker huddled with Spratt and Boyd to hash out a compromise, and all three signed off on a deal during a follow-up later that night. The deal cut $7.2 billion in discretionary spending from the president's request.
During a follow-up meeting later that night, Spratt and Boyd told the speaker they had reached a deal: Nondefense discretionary spending would be capped at 9.5 percent of the overall package. The next day, Democrats on the budget committee unanimously approved the spending blueprint, defeating each Republican amendment with near-unanimous votes and setting the stage for an easier roll call when the resolution comes to the floor Thursday.
“Nobody wants to disappoint her,” California Rep. Mike Thompson said of the speaker. “When she says, ‘Work it out,' people want to work it out.”
Even before she was elected speaker, Pelosi was a devoted colleague and consummate leader-in-training -- tracking the big events in other members' lives, marking the birth of a child or grandchild with a personal note or a hug on the floor.
“She's intense about her love of kids,” said California Rep. Anna Eshoo. “She's done a real study of each member. ... She has a wonderful way of being a friend to members.”
This familial sense helps the speaker get buy-in from her members.
“She makes you part of the family,” Becerra said. “You feel more compelled to work with the family.”
The speaker isn't universally popular in her caucus. Her personal politics put her to the left of many of her members, including an overwhelming number of first- and second-term Democrats who helped the party secure and then expand its majority in the House.
To compensate, she has been particularly attentive to the junior members of her caucus. Earlier this year, she sent each first-term Democrat a flag that flew over the House during Obama's Inauguration. Every week, she hosts a breakfast for the new members. At this week's breakfast -- in the midst of Spratt's budget briefing -- Pelosi trotted out a surprise guest: Bono.
The challenges ahead for the speaker are much steeper than anything she confronted during Obama's first two months in office. Budget writers ignored tough fights over climate change and a repeal of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans by glossing over those issues in the spending blueprint.
The House version has sparked bitter protests from Senate Republicans -- as well as some moderate Democrats -- by leaving open the idea of using the budget reconciliation process to muscle through health care reform. A controversial measure to ease union organizing requirements and a bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still waiting in the wings.
Obama may prove the key to every Democrat's political success -- a fact the president himself noted earlier this week during a session in the Congressional Visitor Center with his House colleagues. But Pelosi's ability to coax legislation through the House -- and force an occasional compromise with the Senate -- could prove key to keeping Democrats happy on Capitol Hill.
“We proceed by consensus,” Pelosi said of the budget negotiations with her caucus and the White H