By Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan
Nancy Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.
While many thought the California Democrat would step down as House minority leader after this Congress, Pelosi confidants now believe she will remain atop House leadership through 2016 and maybe even longer.
Pelosi herself won’t tip her hand about her plans. But she doesn’t appear to be contemplating retirement.
“I’m not here on a shift. I’m here on a mission — and when my work is done, that’s when I will leave,” Pelosi said in a recent interview with POLITICO.
Pelosi declared the main reason she chose to stay put the past two years is to see Obamacare, which she had a strong hand in crafting and pushing through Congress, implemented successfully. Pelosi, like other Democrats, has publicly complained about the disastrous online rollout of the program, but she remains convinced it will turn out well in the long run.
One thing is for sure — Pelosi’s power and influence among her colleagues has returned to levels not seen since she served as speaker. Her position in the Democratic caucus — already strong — was further bolstered during the recent government shutdown and debt ceiling crises. As the Republicans fought each other, Pelosi adeptly managed to hold her colleagues together. And Democrats ultimately gave Speaker John Boehner the lion’s share of the votes to end the chaos.
Pelosi said she believes Democrats could take back the House in 2014.
“I’ve never said we will win. I’ve said we can win, and I have to believe those prospects have increased,” Pelosi said.
For now, the Democratic leader isn’t telegraphing her plans to anyone. Pelosi insists she has not had conversations with her closest allies — not even her husband — about how long she plans to stay in the House.
“I didn’t expect to be here this long, and I’m not trying to break any longevity records, that’s for sure,” Pelosi added. “One thing leads to another. You make a judgment as you go along.”
Still, Pelosi loyalists and Democratic lawmakers say they believe she’s in it for the long haul. They see her staying at least through the end of Obama’s presidency in January 2017, and maybe even beyond.
“There is no sign that she is leaving. I think she will be here as long as President Barack Obama is [in office],” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist at Elemendorf Ryan who is close to Pelosi. “As long as you have a Democratic president, even the minority leader job is a pretty good job … and she has a legitimate potential to become speaker.”
The California Democrat’s ranks of loyal supporters in the House Democratic Caucus was far but assured after Democrats’ stunning election defeat in 2010, which ended Pelosi’s four-year tenure as speaker. Then-Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) made a run at Pelosi’s leadership spot, garnering more than 40 votes and demonstrating serious cracks in Pelosi’s coalition.
Since then, Pelosi has worked to regain the trust and support of her caucus, repeatedly showing that she can corral votes more successfully than Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner has regularly turned to Democrats for must-pass legislation after members of his conference refuse to vote in favor of spending bills and debt ceiling increases, as happened just last week. A total of 198 Democrats voted for the Reid-McConnell agreement to reopen the government and boost the debt ceiling for three months, versus 87 Republicans who voted in agreement.
Pelosi didn’t lose a single Democrat in that vote while 144 Republicans voted against it.
“Nancy Pelosi is stronger today within the Democratic Caucus than she has been at any time since we lost the majority,” said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). “I think the key is early strategic conviction. She made up her mind early what our position should be [on a government funding and the debt ceiling package] after listening to a lot of members and then had absolute laserlike Pelosi focus on it.”
Pelosi ally Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) echoed Andrews’s support.
“Nancy Pelosi continues to be on the top of her game. She’s been firing on all cylinders,” Van Hollen said.
Pelosi was able to deliver the votes of her rank-and-file members to end the shutdown because it promised the opportunity to get to the negotiating table for a potential “mini grand bargain” on spending and entitlement reform, not because they love the bill, she said.
If Pelosi decides to remain in leadership, it is almost assured that no one would challenge her. But while Democrats have rallied around Pelosi, there is a generation of potential Democratic leaders waiting in the wings that could miss their chance at moving into leadership as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) have also remained in place. Pelosi noted that Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) is new to the leadership this year. But Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is without a leadership post, and there are junior members who complain privately about the “iron triad” of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn running the caucus for years.
“That’s really up to the members,” Pelosi said when asked about the need for new blood.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), Pelosi’s closest ally in the House, said that she has worked really hard to change the makeup of the committee membership in terms of diversity, increasing participation of new members, women and minority caucuses.
“It is constantly about trying to strengthen the caucus and that includes everything she does … pushing people forward and making sure they are included by senior members on committees, in the caucus, on steering and policy and then also doing all of the political things that need to be done,” Miller said.
Democrats say they are seeing the impact of the government shutdown and near default of the country’s credit on everything from candidate recruitment to grass-roots engagement to fundraising.
“Our third quarter is going to be big compared to everybody else,” Pelosi said.
Still, it would be a heavy lift to win 16 seats and the majority, especially after the most recent round of redistricting. A more likely scenario would be House Democrats winning back a handful of seats and trying to position themselves for a big 2016 election.
As for her Republican counterpart Boehner, Pelosi said that while they are personally friends, he is not in control of his members.
“The fact is, I’m very time-oriented. It’s about time and the time they went from not accepting our offer before the shutdown to accepting it last night was a tremendous opportunity cost of other things we could have been doing, but in addition to that, a cost to our economy,” Pelosi said in an interview last week..
In many ways, Pelosi said she is frustrated with Republicans’ refusal to work with the Obama administration.
“We respect the presidency and while we have our disagreements, that doesn’t bar cooperation in many other ways,” Pelosi said of her tenure as speaker during President George W. Bush’s administration. Many liberal Democrats wanted to cut off funding for the Iraq War, but Pelosi refused to do that, despite her own opposition to the conflict.
“I wish that Republicans in Congress had the same attitude with President Obama,” Pelosi said.