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Democrats Irrelevant? Don't Be So Sure, Pelosi Promises

Pelosi points to a vote card depicting the House Democrats who voted to reopen the government in 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nancy Pelosi insists she doesn't gloat when House Republicans can't shore up the votes among their own members to pass any number of critical bills, and it's Democrats who get to swoop in and call themselves the heroes.  

"I would rather they did the responsible thing so we wouldn’t have to bail them out every time," the California Democrat quipped of her GOP counterparts.  

But the minority leader, who sat for an interview in her Capitol Hill office with CQ Roll Call, must be feeling gratified.  

The government is on the precipice of a shutdown, and if Republicans can't get to 218 votes on their side of the aisle, Pelosi will get to call in the cavalry once again.  

It would be the second time in a matter of weeks that she's gotten to flex her muscle: She successfully squelched a pre-Thanksgiving deal on a tax extenders package negotiated exclusively by Senate Democrats and House Republicans — a deal that would have been a nonstarter for her caucus and President Barack Obama.  

"The minute we got wind of what [it] would be and that it had a path, before it gained any respectability, I called our members and said, 'This is what I think is happening ... but I have to know that I can say to the president that this will sustain a veto,'" Pelosi recalled.  

With Obama still in the White House, Pelosi remains a player, as her impact on the tax extenders package showed. But how much leverage she retains in the 114th could come down to how she fits into the Republican-controlled Congress over the next two years.  

"I don’t think anyone is irrelevant. We have leverage if they don’t have the votes," she said. "They have leverage because they know we will be responsible. And that allows them to be irresponsible to a certain extent."  

And 2016? Well, that's a whole new ballgame. By then, the country could see its first female president, said the nation's first female speaker.  

"Let me say this about Hillary [Rodham] Clinton: When she runs, she will win. And when she wins, she'll go to the White House as one of the most prepared people in modern history to go there," Pelosi said, stopping just short of an endorsement that would be significant for Clinton, the former first lady and ex-secretary of State.  

A favorite parlor game of political observers and operatives, members and aides is wondering when Pelosi might retire.  

For the past 12 years, she's been her caucus's most senior leader, and during that time she's cemented her legacy as a master vote-counter, consensus-builder and fundraiser.  

She's said she's continuing to serve because she does so at the pleasure of her members, and because she wants to protect the landmark, and perpetually embattled, health care legislation she helped draft and pass in 21010.  

Could 2016 be the year she steps aside, especially if Clinton runs and wins?  

Pelosi, 74, offers no hints, but she doesn't pretend she'll be around forever.  

Reminded that she said she'd stay on as leader as long as the caucus wants her, Pelosi joked, "Well, maybe not that long."  

Asked whether anybody else could now do what she does, she drew in a breath and laughed: "I certainly hope so."  

"Tooting my own horn, ... the support I have in the country, originating in the great state of California, is substantial, and enables me to amass resources because they believe in what I believe in and also want to see a Democratic majority," said Pelosi, who has raised more than $400 million since she entered leadership in 2002.  

Despite some grumblings that she has an inner circle and doesn't like to expand it, Pelosi insisted she is and has always been laying the groundwork for a next generation of leadership to ascend when the time comes for her — and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn, also in their mid-70s — to step aside.  

"That's always a responsibility that we have," Pelosi said. "I've probably appointed more women to be, where I had the discretion, to be chairs of committees, or place them in positions where they would become chairs."  

The same is true, she said, for members of color, such as Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, whom she tapped to be top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. "There were people more senior who wanted that position, but it was a new committee so I had the ability to put that lineup in place," she said.  

"It's not just about leadership," she added. "This place is competitive in some ways, but there's so much opportunity, and beyond having a role, it's what your standing is on the issue."  

Pelosi tried recently to help elevate a woman to serve as ranking member of Energy and Commerce — a fellow Californian and her close friend, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo. Her endorsement ended up not being enough for Eshoo to defeat the more senior Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, and it was one of a series of personal obstacles Pelosi faced in the immediate aftermath of an Election Day drubbing, when members were looking for someone to blame and targeted the minority leader for not taking ownership of the losses.  

She regained some goodwill, however, when she surprised nearly everybody and selected New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Luján to be the next chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  

With members expecting Pelosi to promote someone already firmly installed in her circle, the gesture was met with enthusiasm. Even her critics saw it as a sign their leader was open to singling out lawmakers who were outside the box, had put their heads down and worked hard and who didn't necessarily have household names.  

"He has a beautiful reputation," Pelosi said of Luján.  

Pelosi said members would have to answer the question of what has earned her the loyalty she enjoys, but she described herself as "a weaver of a loom just ... pulling together all the threads of different opinion in our caucus.  

"My job is to make sure that we have the strongest possible fabric woven from all those different threads," she continued. "If I have to say to people, 'This is a path that we have to go, to vote with the Republicans to get something done, you don't have to vote for it, but I have to give it some support,' then they understand that. If you're saying to people, 'This is terrible, but you have to vote for it,' that's a harder sell than if you're saying, 'We just need to be helpful and you can ... make your own judgment.'  

"And they always do make their own judgment," she said.  

Related: Full Transcript Incoming CHC Chairman Wants Role for ‘Fresher’ Faces Luján Pledges to Bring Farmer’s Work Ethic to DCCC Walz Gets VA Committee Spot After Messy Process CBC Rallies to Defend Brown, Democrats’ Seniority System The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.