CQ Today: Amid Legislative Scramble, Dealmaking Pelosi Keeping Democrats in Line

By Alan K. Ota

Before an energy bill was scheduled for House debate this week, Democratic leaders tried to be sure nothing in the fine print could be used by opponents to engineer its defeat.

So on July 26, Nancy Pelosi invited Gene Green, D-Texas, to her office for the kind of negotiating session that has become the Speaker’s standard endgame procedure: top-level attention to thorny details that have the potential to fracture the House’s Democratic majority.

Green brought along several other oil-state Democrats. They sat down with Pelosi, D-Calif., and Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who at that point liked his committee’s bill (HR 2337) the way it was.

Participants reported later that Pelosi said she was willing to entertain changes, but only up to a point.

When they walked out, members of the group had shaken hands on the addition of some ‘sweeteners,’ including a provision to expedite permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands. Left intact were provisions that would repeal tax breaks for oil and gas producers in order to offset the cost of alternative-fuel incentives. And Pelosi did not rule out an amendment to increase fuel-efficiency standards.

In striking deals that addressed peanut-state interests before last week’s passage of a farm bill (HR 2419) and tobacco-state interests in preparation for this week’s consideration of a children’s health insurance bill (HR 3162), Pelosi offered narrowly targeted compromises during chats on the House floor, meetings and late-night telephone marathons.

‘When you listen to people, you get better ideas,’ she said. ‘When you share concerns, and people understand what other people’s concerns are, you can produce something.’

Deals That Close Party Ranks

Senior Democrats including Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, a close Pelosi adviser and fellow Californian, said the Speaker tends to enter legislative negotiations when her caucus is on the brink of stalemate.

Pelosi skipped her usual Friday afternoon flight to California on July 27 to negotiate a crucial detail in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill — how to offset the cost of expanding coverage.

The Speaker and other party leaders badly want to pass the measure to help them counter Republican criticism of the legislative record of the Democratic-led Congress.

In the Speaker’s office, Pelosi, Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., talked through potential offsets and budget maneuvers, including sunset dates that could reduce the bill’s cost.

Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said Pelosi was the prime driver on two final pieces of the farm bill.

At 1:30 a.m. on July 26, hours before the amended bill was unveiled in the Rules Committee, the Speaker was on the telephone with Peterson, Ways and Means staff and her own circle of advisers. Those discussions solidified a plan to help cover the new farm bill’s cost by curbing a practice that allows foreign companies operating in the United States to shift tax liability to subsidiaries in low-tax countries.

Pelosi also brokered a deal between Peterson and a pair of Blue Dog Democrats, Georgia’s Sanford D. Bishop Jr. and Florida’s Allen Boyd, to provide peanut farmers with ‘green payments” if they produce a crop once in four years, instead of once every three years. ‘That was the last piece that allowed us to finish the bill and bring it to the floor,’ Peterson said.

‘People always underestimate her. It’s a big mistake,” said David L. Hobson, R-Ohio. ‘She’s been able to hold Democrats together. And she’s gotten bills passed without making major compromises. The bottom line is that she wins.’

Pelosi’s dealmaking ability faces another big test this week. The children’s health insurance bill includes a tobacco tax increase that could alienate as many as 20 House Democrats representing tobacco-growing districts, many of them Blue Dogs who generally resist tax increases.

Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark, D-Calif., credits Pelosi with working out a deal to set the proposed tax hike at 45 cents on each pack of cigarettes, roughly splitting the difference between moderate Democrats who wanted a 39-cent increase and liberals who favored a 61-cent hike.

Stark and other Democrats said Pelosi also is banking on defections by Republicans who are reluctant to vote against enhancing health care coverage for children.

But bipartisan dealmaking has not been part of the new Speaker’s repertoire. GOP aides say she holds ceremonial meetings with Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, but leaves substantive consultations with him to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

On the farm bill, ‘She could have had more than 100 Republican votes, if she reached out. But she chose not to,’ said Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

And Ralph M. Hall, R-Texas, criticized Pelosi for not consulting with Republicans on the energy bill. ‘Hopefully, she will get all these things out of her system,’ he said. ‘Then I hope she will go with the flow, and work more with both sides.’

Boehner said Republicans ultimately will defeat Pelosi by sustaining President Bush’s vetoes of Democratic legislation.

Regardless of what happens to the SCHIP bill, Pelosi can boast of progress on her party’s session-opening domestic agenda, ‘Six for ’06.’ An increased minimum wage has already taken effect (PL 110-28) and a measure (HR 1) to implement more of the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission is on its way to the president. That’s two for six.

If the House and Senate complete identical versions of a lobbying and ethics measure (S 1) this week — a deal Pelosi worked out with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a phone call the evening of July 27 — Democrats will have another thing to brag about during the August recess.