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Pelosi's Price Is a Seat at Fiscal Table

House Democrats seen as protectors of entitlement programs ahead of possible cuts

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Pelosi was sometimes left out of the loop in the past year, as Boehner and Obama worked on the details of a grand bargain. But as the fiscal cliff talks heat up in the lame-duck session, it seems the minority leader is in a position of power.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi may have newfound leverage during the fiscal cliff talks, a turnabout for the California Democrat who was marginalized in the other major budget and spending deals this Congress.

With House Republicans acknowledging they have little hope of passing a fiscal cliff deal with just the votes of their own conference, Democrats will likely prove crucial to House passage.

Democrats already appear to be in good position to wrangle some tax hikes out of Republicans as part of any budget agreement to at least extend middle-class tax cuts and avoid the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts scheduled to kick in Jan. 1. But what they give in return on entitlements could depend in large part on whether the former speaker wants to persuade House Democrats to go along with it.

“House Democrats will act as partners in an effort to reach an agreement,” Pelosi told reporters last week. “We are open to a grand bargain, and however we get to the place where we can have significant deficit reduction.”

She noted that polls show Americans support President Barack Obama’s push to allow tax rates on the highest income to rise, saying, “I think that is where a good deal of leverage is in these negotiations.”

But Pelosi also repeatedly emphasized the idea that a budget is a “reflection of values” and that she sees her role as not only making sure the wealthy are “paying their fair share,” but also protecting entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Sources close to the minority leader point to the fact that there were no entitlement cuts in the 2011 budget deal in part because of her efforts to keep them out.

Defending entitlement programs could be a tricky prospect, especially with Obama having already tentatively agreed in 2011’s failed grand bargain talks with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to raise the Medicare eligibility age and slow the growth of Social Security.

Of course, rank-and-file Democrats balked at those concessions, and Obama is currently under pressure from organized labor and others on the left to resist a similar deal this time around.

More than Senate Democrats, who need Republicans to help them get a filibuster-proof majority, House Democrats could be the more aggressive protectors of entitlements.

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