For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that the California Democrat’s caucus is showing newfound unity and a willingness to play hardball, putting Pelosi in a position to wield more influence on major bills such as the fiscal cliff deal.
The bad news is that Republican redistricting victories in 2010 have Democrats facing a steep climb to retaking control of the House, meaning that there is no apparent end to her stay in the minority.
After months of vowing that Democrats would retake the House in 2012, Pelosi was forced to declare victory after the party racked up modest gains while prevailing in a surprising number of Senate races and the presidential election.
Republicans say Pelosi’s decision to stay on as leader in the 113th “signals that House Democrats have absolutely no interest in regaining the trust and confidence of the American people who took the speaker’s gavel away from Nancy Pelosi in the first place,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Still, the fiscal cliff proved that Pelosi is still a player, as she successfully convinced President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pull some structural reforms to entitlement programs off the table.
“The minority in the House has very few ways of getting things on the agenda,” Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, a former top staffer for the House Rules Committee and a CQ Roll Call contributing writer, said recently.
But Pelosi is beginning to maximize her leverage by keeping her troops unified, making Republicans find the votes for a majority in their own conference.
“There are few people as strategic as Nancy Pelosi. She has expressed to her colleagues and to others that if Democrats are going to be asked to support something, the number of Democrats who will be able to support something depends on the something they are being asked to support,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“If you need Democrats, you need to tell us what’s in the deal, and if there is an appetite in the caucus, then the caucus will provide the votes. If there is no appetite in the caucus, then you can’t count on us for the votes. Nobody knows how to get to 218 more than Nancy Pelosi, and so she’s been applying herself to see how you get to 218 to get this solved in a way that is fair,” Israel said.
Throughout the fiscal cliff debate, Pelosi remained in close contact with Obama and Reid. Israel said that Obama would often call Pelosi during House Democratic leadership meetings. And a Democratic leadership aide said that Pelosi and Obama spoke at length on New Year’s Eve to review the final terms of a deal struck between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Pelosi’s clout was instrumental in pulling an increase to the Medicare eligibility age off the table in the failed talks between Boehner and Obama. After the talks between House Republicans and the president fell apart, Pelosi ensured that “chained CPI,” a proposal to change how Social Security payments are indexed for inflation, wasn’t part of talks between McConnell and Biden, the Democratic leadership aide said.
Going forward, a key question facing the liberal Pelosi, 72, is whether she’ll nurture a successor or let more moderate Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 73, ascend to replace her. Hoyer lost in a head-to-head contest against Pelosi for whip in 2002 and has long aspired to be the top House Democrat. If Pelosi had stepped down in 2010 or 2012, Hoyer would have been a lock to replace her, even if for just a transitional period because of his age.
Democratic aides and members list three Pelosi allies as possible successors: Israel, Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member on the Budget Committee. Pelosi’s preferences are known only to her — she is ruthlessly efficient at controlling information when she deems it necessary.