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Roll Call

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.

“I can see areas where they could provide cover — particularly on entitlements,” said one Senate aide of House Democrats. “This might seem obvious, but [Pelosi] is good at reminding Republicans when they will need the help of her caucus. In some of the debt ceiling negotiations ... Boehner would go down the road and [say], ‘Look, we’re going to do this on our own,’ and then they’d have an internal revolt 72 hours later and come back begging for help.”

House Democrats “want to be at the table, and if they feel left out, they’ll sit on their hands,” the aide added.

Pelosi has not ruled out changes to entitlement programs, but she has drawn a line at benefit cuts. And she has questioned what Republicans really mean when they say they want “structural changes” to entitlements.

“I don’t know what they are saying by structural,” she said last week. “Is that a euphemism for I am going to cut your benefit if you are a middle-aged senior? Is that what structural change means? No, I don’t support that.”

Pelosi has also backed up Obama’s call for more growth-oriented stimulus in the short term.

In her time as minority leader and speaker, Pelosi built a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator not afraid to fight those whom she sees as obstacles to her legislative priorities, whether that’s the Republican opposition or Obama. But that doggedness also caused Boehner and Senate leaders to see her as more of an annoyance than a negotiating partner in last year’s budget battles.

During the final weeks of last fall’s supercommittee negotiations — the failure of which led to the same $1.2 trillion in cuts at the center of talks now — Pelosi was left out of a meeting the other top three leaders held with the panel’s top members. Earlier that spring, she was largely kept out of government shutdown talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Boehner and Obama.

But the dynamics appear different this time.

“It makes all the sense in the world, from the perspective of the president, House Republicans and Senate Democrats, to have House Democrats at the table,” said one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Republicans were hesitant to talk about the increased importance of House Democrats because doing so might reveal a lack of confidence in their own rank and file before negotiations have begun in earnest.

Though it appears unlikely Pelosi would be sidelined again, she may decide to delegate some of her negotiating power to other House Democrats, particularly House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen. The Maryland lawmaker served on the supercommittee as well as the deficit reduction working group led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“Absolutely — he’s the go-to guy on fiscal issues for Leader Pelosi,” said a senior House Democratic aide on whether Van Hollen will play a key role. “Obviously, the [White House] agrees with Pelosi by having [him] help with Biden’s debate prep.”

One wild card in Pelosi’s own conference could be her ability to maintain a united front.

For example, the centrist New Democrat Coalition has been posturing as would-be partners of Boehner in a deficit deal if they think Democratic leaders are leaning too far left.

At a press conference Nov. 15, New Democrats Vice Chairman Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said the members of the group were willing to discuss “anything,” including cuts to entitlement programs.

Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.

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