Washington Post Capitol Briefing Blog: Player of the Week – Nancy Pelosi

By Ben Pershing

Having been raised on a steady diet of highlight shows like Sportscenter and This Week in Baseball (with the greatest theme song ever), Capitol Briefing has always been fond of awards like ‘Pepsi Clutch Performer’ and ‘Rolaids Relief Man.’

Beginning today, Capitol Briefing will begin handing out his own honor – Player of the Week. The award will go each Friday to the lawmaker or other congressional figure who has had the biggest impact or the most interesting role in the week’s events. The award won’t always be a positive — a member who gets embroiled in scandal will be just as ripe a candidate as the one who scores a big legislative victory.

The winner won’t receive any actual prize – that might draw frowns from the ethics committee or Howard Kurtz. But the recipient will get a place of honor in the Capitol Briefing archive, viewable online for posterity.

So, without further ado, the first-ever Player of the Week award goes to … (Capitol Briefing fumbles to open the envelope) … Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for her work on the just-completed economic stimulus package.

Success has 1,000 fathers (and mothers), and the unusually rapid agreement and passage of the stimulus bill was the work of several players. Pelosi crafted the original version that passed the House at the bargaining table with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

The Senate measure was vetted by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and its passage last night was the product of a deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But while everyone wanted a bill to pass, and all the leaders crowed about it last night, Pelosi had both the most to gain and the most to lose in this process.

Democrats’ biggest challenge this year is proving that they can govern, that they can get important legislation passed and signed into law. The stimulus bill was especially important on this front, as the recession-fearing public’s abysmally low view of Congress would have gone even further into the tank had it not passed.

Pelosi took a big risk by sitting down with Boehner and the Bush administration to negotiate — something she has almost never done since becoming Speaker. She took heat from some factions of her caucus for doing so, and for agreeing to a bill that was missing some Democratic priorities, like an extension of unemployment benefits.

Of course, Boehner faced some criticism of his own from conservatives, who wanted more relief for businesses and were wary of the idea of tax rebates. But Boehner — and McConnell — always had a fallback option.

If the entire process had fallen apart, Republicans could have blamed Democrats for once again failing to get an important bill through. Democrats, in turn, would have accused the GOP of obstructionism. But ultimately, when Congress fails to produce, the majority party tends to get the majority of the blame.

So why give the award to Pelosi rather than Reid? Because the bill that ended up passing last night looked a lot more like the House bill than the one Reid tried, and failed, to get through the Senate Wednesday evening because he couldn’t find a 60th vote to end a GOP filibuster. Gone were Senate-added items like an extension of unemployment insurance and energy tax credits. What was left was essentially the House bill, with the addition of benefits for seniors and veterans that House Democrats had wanted anyway.

So now Pelosi has a big accomplishment under her belt just a couple of weeks into the session, one that managed to win above-the-fold, front-page press coverage on a day full of presidential campaign news. When things get rougher later in the year, as they are certain to do, and Democrats are having trouble getting things done, they can always fall back on the stimulus bill as a concrete example of their ability to govern.

The genesis of that victory was Pelosi’s decision to cut a deal, and that’s why she’s the Player of the Week.

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