Much about the November midterms is uncertain, but theres one thing prognosticators can assure: Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be less influential come Nov. 3.
The California Democrat would lose the gavel if Republicans sweep to power. But even if Democrats retain control, Republicans are all but certain to make significant gains. And Pelosi, who has been referred to as the most powerful Speaker in history, may soon be captaining a razor-thin majority and rethinking her approach to marshaling votes.
Although liberals would likely make up a greater percentage of a reduced House Democratic majority, moderate Members who survive the election probably will enjoy fresh influence because Pelosi no would longer be able to spare their votes. Pelosi has had the luxury over the past two years of letting a few moderates go their own way, but with her numbers slashed, she will have to negotiate more directly with the centrist bloc to get anything done. It just takes a style of leadership that has not been hers so far, said one Democratic strategist, who noted that Pelosis top-down leadership approach has relied largely on a structure of committees that, in many cases, are headed by close liberal allies. That has to change.
Democratic strategists say Pelosi, who became Speaker in 2007, would need to build stronger ties to members of the moderate Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, perhaps bringing those groups to the negotiating table earlier on in the legislative process.
The current 39-seat Democratic edge has afforded the California Democrat enough of a cushion to pass controversial initiatives such as the climate change, health care and financial regulatory reform bills with little or no GOP support. She could even afford Democratic defections: 44 Democrats voted against the final version of health care reform in March, while 44 Democrats voted against the climate change bill in June 2009.
Thats a luxury of Members in tough districts not having to vote with us, said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist who served as chief of staff to then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). You wont have that luxury.
Even with votes to spare, Pelosi has struggled to build consensus within her diverse Caucus. In recent months, for example, Blue Dog Coalition opposition nearly scuttled her plans to bring campaign finance reform and jobs legislation to the floor.
Still, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami downplayed the suggestion that the Speaker would have to change tactics in a smaller majority.
We will continue to operate the same way weve always operated, which is through consensus in our Caucus, he said. We build consensus in our Caucus, and thats the strength of the Democratic Caucus on whatever the issue is. And that will continue to be the case.
Pelosi allies point out that she already meets weekly with freshman and sophomore Democrats, many of whom hail from GOP-leaning districts and are Blue Dogs or New Democrats. They also point out that Pelosi often schedules meetings with different factions of her Caucus when Members have concerns about specific bills.
Although Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has closer ties to moderates, Pelosi met numerous times with reticent Blue Dogs to persuade them to support the health care bill and with New Democrats to try to allay concerns about the financial reform measure.