Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) heads to Williamsburg, Va., today facing a growing bloc of Democrats chafing for more input in the legislative process.
Its not a new gripe, and it issues from a familiar place: moderate Democrats, mostly members of the House Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, angry that they are getting shut out of decision-making.
Tensions between moderates and Pelosi, often at a low boil, heightened over spending provisions in the economic stimulus package that prompted several to oppose the bill and others to complain openly. They charge the package did not reflect their input, an objection tempered somewhat by the urgency of the need for the measure.
But as the House pivots to a broader agenda, moderates say they are finding new allies in their push to ensure upcoming bills work their way through committees, and that leaders convene conference committees to hash out compromises.
And they plan to confront Pelosi during the House Democrats annual retreat, kicking off today, to extract guarantees that leadership will loosen the reins.
Theres frustration across the spectrum of our Caucus, from the left wing to the moderates, said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who doesnt belong to a caucus group.
Sixty-six Democrats nearly all Blue Dogs or New Democrats on Thursday articulated their frustration in a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that urged a return to regular order, citing President Barack Obamas campaign promise to move the debate in Washington, D.C., beyond old partisan divisions.
Whether Pelosi is ready to accede is a separate question. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), the Blue Dog ambassador to leadership, said he raised the issue with Pelosi in a Tuesday leadership meeting. The Speaker was overwhelmingly in support of it, he said.
In a few cases, because of urgent financial crises, the leadership agreed to use expedited procedures, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. However, both the Speaker and leadership agree that it is preferable to use regular order, especially in non-emergency cases, and that has always been the intent.
That is, senior Democratic aides and strategists said, Pelosi supports allowing lawmakers to work their will unless she doesnt.
If its in her interest to do it, shell do it, one strategist said. But when she needs to abandon it to get things done, she will, just like former Republican Speakers Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.).
Pelosi allies insist that the Speaker short-circuited the committee process during the previous Congress only when her hand was forced by an intransigent Senate and a president threatening veto. They say that with expanded majorities in both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, the rank and file can now look forward to more participation.
Moderates remain skeptical. Were not where we ought to be, said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), a Blue Dog leader. He said the lawmakers experience with the stimulus bill set nerves on edge. The spin right now is that its an emergency, weve got to get it done, and weve got to cram through. Why not get it to us a few days earlier, so at least we know what were talking about?
They have an ally in Hoyer, who is both a moderate and an institutionalist. He convenes a weekly meeting of chairmen, often prodding them to keep up with timelines set by leadership in order to maintain control of issues under their jurisdiction. Asked on Tuesday about a return to regular order, Hoyer called it a very important pursuit.
Regular order gives to everybody the opportunity to participate in the process in a fashion which will effect, in my opinion, the most consensus and best product, he said.
Hoyer has raised the issue with Pelosi and received encouraging feedback, senior Democratic aides said.
But Pelosi spent the past two years demonstrating her ability to translate her will into action, often by seizing the initiative from her chairmen.
In the 110th Congress, Pelosi frequently outmaneuvered Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), including on negotiations to expand childrens health insurance, in that case using a process that Rangel complained left the House cut off at the knees.
And she squared off with then-Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) over the direction of energy policy, undercutting his jurisdiction by creating the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee. The panel has no legislative authority, but its establishment sent a clear signal.
Later that year, Pelosi executed an end-around the veteran Michigan Democrat to secure passage of a landmark energy bill that tightened fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, prompting Dingell to gripe on the floor, I have some reservations, to put it mildly, about how this legislation was assembled.
Dingell is one of a handful of Democrats unaffiliated with either of the moderate caucuses to sign on to the letter to Hoyer.
On the whole, the Brookings Institution found in a recent report, House Democrats in the 110th Congress considered legislation under fewer open rules and many more closed rules than any of their six Republican predecessors and were at least as willing to forego committee deliberations and bring unreported bills directly to the floor under special rules as their Republican counterparts.
And Democratic leaders almost banished conference committees altogether in the second session, the institution found.
It is not yet clear what will provide the next litmus test of Pelosis commitment to taking a more hands-off approach under the new order. Some strategists suggested that as Pelosi develops a working relationship with Obama, taking a more deliberative approach to legislating could help protect her prerogatives against potentially competing priorities from the White House.
Others were not convinced. Said one senior Democratic aide: Shes a control freak.