While the leadership styles of Speakers Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) never have had much in common, the difference in their governing philosophies could not have been more stark than when Pelosi offered her take on Hastert’s “majority of the majority” rule Friday.
“I’m the Speaker of the House,” Pelosi told reporters. “I have to take into consideration something broader than the majority of the majority in the Democratic Caucus.”
That clearly was the case Thursday, when the House approved an Iraq War supplemental bill with more than twice as many supporters from the minority as from the majority — in the 280-142 final passage vote, 194 Republicans voted for the bill versus 86 Democrats.
While sources on both sides of the aisle cautioned that the war has presented its own unique circumstances, Pelosi so far has displayed a willingness that has trickled down in the ranks to count on the minority party to aid passage of some of the big-ticket items on the Congressional agenda this year, not just on Iraq but also on issues such as trade and immigration.
“There are a lot of issues that cross party lines,” said George Crawford, Pelosi’s former chief of staff who is now a lobbyist at King & Spalding. “On the larger issue of the ‘majority of the majority,’ she has talked about that for a quite a while. She does want the minority party to engage in the legislative process and I think you see [Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)] and a lot of other chairmen working with the minority party. That’s the kind of Speakership she wants.”
So far, Pelosi’s attitude toward moving legislation is in direct contrast to how Hastert did business.
“On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority,” Hastert famously told a November 2003 Capitol Hill audience in a speech outlining his principles for the office. “The job of Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.”
The majority of the majority litmus test became informally known as the Hastert Rule in the House, and under Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Republican leaders rarely brought bills to the floor that could not meet that standard. The rule also delayed or postponed floor action on bills that could have passed with significant Democratic support, such as measures on stem-cell research and immigration reform in 2006.
For most of his tenure, Hastert benefited from having President Bush in the White House, allowing him to move legislation that catered more to the party’s base. Leadership most often relied on their rank and file to reach 218 — the number of votes needed to pass a bill against generally strong Democratic opposition.
A former Hastert aide argued that the majority rule worked most of the time and said the reverse eventually could cause trouble for Pelosi, who has held the gavel for only five months.
“You really do want to work through the problems within your own Caucus to get as many folks as possible on your side,” the aide said. “It’s going to be difficult for Pelosi to show consensus in her own party if that is how she’s going to do it. She can probably get some things done, but you don’t want to risk alienating too many of your own Members. It could have a boomerang effect, especially during an election year. Sometimes it’s better to have the issue and not the result.”
Pelosi’s more inclusive approach also is not what many expected from her Speakership, as her personal political views are more in line with the more liberal wing of the party. “It’s a very practical approach you’re seeing from the Speaker right now,” noted a former Clinton White House official with ties to leadership. “She’s turning out to be much more pragmatic than most people expected her to be.”
A GOP aide conceded that Democrats understand if they want to move any major bills they are going to have to widen the net. “I think there’s something to be said for the argument that some issues are so big and so important that they have to be done on a bipartisan basis,” the aide said. “If we’re going to get anything done on trade or Social Security or health care, it’s probably going to be bipartisan.”
The willingness to include Republicans is on display on the committee level as well.
On trade, Rangel has worked closely with Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.) to craft an early framework for agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea that has caused friction in the party wings on both sides of the aisle. Their working relationship is in direct contrast to the reign of former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who ran the committee when Republicans were in power and had frosty relations with Rangel.
Rangel’s negotiating with GOP leaders and the White House on trade with Pelosi’s blessing angered liberals within the Caucus, who fear the House will move forward with trade measures opposed by a large bloc of the majority party.
Similarly on immigration, California Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Howard Berman actively are courting Republican support and have conceded that a bill will not happen this Congress unless they get a solid number of Republicans on board. Pelosi herself has estimated that she needs roughly 70 GOP votes to pass a comprehensive immigration bill through the chamber.
“I think our folks just want to move these bills and if they have to bring on Republican co-sponsors to get it done then so be it,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the immigration talks. “We try to keep as many Republicans in the loop that want to be in the loop on immigration.”
Pelosi’s approach may be more about navigating the political realities of moving bills in the face of a closely divided Senate and a Republican White House than earnestly seeking bipartisan legislation, but she insists that it’s not how she plans on running the place.
“I would encourage my colleagues not to be proposing resolutions that say ‘the majority of the majority does this or that,’” Pelosi said. “We have to talk it out, see what is possible to get a job done. And as I say, we do that together.”