House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appears to command more votes in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations than the speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner of Ohio.
That's because the San Francisco Democrat leads a unified caucus whose votes will be needed to pass any deal to avert more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts come Jan. 1.
Boehner's Republicans, by contrast, are rebellious and fractured, having abandoned their leader.
"She's got to be sitting back and smiling at all of this right now," said Jim Manley, formerly a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "She's got some pretty good cards to play."
Pelosi and other top congressional leaders met with President Obama on Friday. Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised to try to come up with a deal by Sunday.
If they fail, Obama said he would ask Reid to put to an up-or-down vote a bill to extend income tax cuts on all households but those earning more than $250,000 a year and extend unemployment benefits. The move was an obvious challenge to Republicans in both chambers.
That Pelosi should control the majority from the minority is a huge embarrassment to Republicans and a powerful lever for Obama.
"She has her caucus more in lockstep with the White House than Boehner does with himself," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "In the House, there's no way around it. Unless fiscal conservatives say, 'All right, I see the greater strategy here,' there is no way to do this without votes from Pelosi's caucus."
More popular than Boehner
Having lost the speaker's gavel in 2010 after a GOP pummeling that drove her approval rating into the basement, Pelosi now finds herself more popular than Boehner, whose 31 percent approval rating in a recent Rasmussen survey now ranks him as the least-liked congressional leader.
Democratic aides attribute this bizarre turn of events to a series of political miscalculations by Boehner that contrast with Pelosi's ability to hold Democrats together during contentious votes under her leadership, including passing health care reform, the 2008 bank rescue and funding for the Iraq war.
In the fiscal negotiations, Obama and Republicans are about $300 billion apart, which is not much on the scale of a budget that runs to the tens of trillions of dollars over the next decade. During the previous three administrations, Democratic and Republican, such differences were frequently bridged.
This time, Boehner found himself boxed into a corner by rebellious conservatives who abandoned him when he offered a "Plan B" on Dec. 20 to raise taxes on millionaires, a proposal Pelosi first proposed last year.
"The whole Plan B idea was to try to go back to the million-dollar threshold, and they thought that enough Democrats would come over," said a House Democratic leadership aide.
"They thought that by going to that level that they would get Democratic votes. They even said it was like the Pelosi plan. But they made a tremendous miscalculation," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Democrats would not support it. We were completely united and ultimately they realized that not only did they not have any Democratic votes, they didn't have enough Republican votes."
Boehner faces even more difficult odds when the new Congress starts and the GOP advantage in the House shrinks to 17 votes from 25.
Obama campaigned on raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year. Pelosi threw out the million-dollar threshold earlier this year as a political ploy to demonstrate that Republicans would not vote to raise taxes even on the very wealthy. Had the House adopted Plan B, it would have given Boehner some leverage in the negotiations.
Conservatives didn't get it
"A lot of fiscal conservatives feel that they don't want to compromise principle, and for them, raising tax rates violates their principle," O'Connell said. "Personally, I think that game theory may be a lost art among fiscal conservatives. They don't recognize that Boehner was trying to move the ball down the field by lobbing Plan B to the Senate so he could minimize what Obama's political victory would be."
Democrats argued that many Republicans, including McConnell of Kentucky, who faces re-election in 2014, are so fearful of Tea Party primary challenges that they dare not compromise on taxes, making a deal with Obama impossible.
Obama, having won re-election, is taking a much harder line than in previous budget talks, in which he agreed to spending cuts in 2011 and a two-year renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010, negotiations that teed up the current impasse.
There are signs of closer coordination between the White House and Pelosi than in earlier negotiations, increasing her ability to keep Democrats in line.
In initial negotiations toward a "grand bargain," Pelosi drew a hard line on Medicare, vowing that House Democrats would refuse to agree to raise the retirement age for receiving benefits.
After that, she angered liberal interest groups when she seemed to accede to an adjustment in an inflation index that would reduce the growth rate of benefits in Social Security. As talks began to break down in recent weeks, she became less publicly visible, avoiding controversies that could potentially split Democrats.
"She's kept her powder dry and kept her troops in line and recognized that there is no need to get into a circular firing squad," Manley said.
Pelosi ruminated to reporters earlier this month on the challenges of leadership, comparing Boehner's refusal to allow a vote on the fiscal cliff to her decision to allow votes on funding the Iraq war, which she and many Democrats strongly opposed.
'You have to do it'
"Do you know what it was like for me to bring a bill to the floor to fund the war in Iraq, a war predicated on a misrepresentation to the American people?" Pelosi told reporters.
Former President George W. Bush refused to agree to timelines to end the war, and Pelosi's alternative was to cut off funding for troops.
"So it's tough," Pelosi said. "But you have to do it. So is the point that you don't want to put your members on the spot? Figure it out. We did."