Critics: Tension Over Pelosi Still Smolders

Posted May 6, 2005 at 6:17pm

Despite assurances by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) last week that tensions in her Caucus have subsided, moderate Democrats are privately still frustrated and say she has not done enough to repair the fissures.

Moderates say they are waiting for action, not apologies, from Pelosi. They say they want the Minority Leader to show that moderate and conservative Democrats are part of party decision-making and that their views — even when different from the liberal majority of the party — are understood and respected.

Several moderate Democratic Members who remain publicly tight-lipped about the situation said privately that “discussions are ongoing” and no solutions have been found. “It’s to be continued,” one Member said.

“This is going to take some time and a lot of outreach from Pelosi to undo the damage,” added a senior staffer to a conservative Member.

Pelosi, however, said she doesn’t believe problems in her Caucus truly run that deep. The Minority Leader last week said that even though Members have differences of opinion, House Democrats are moving ahead together.

“Nobody said that the Democrats or the Republicans always agree on every issue,” she said. “But I know why we are Democrats, and I feel very good about how we’re going forth.”

At issue is a recently exposed divide between moderate and liberal Democrats in the Caucus that came to a head at a private Democratic Whip meeting last month, after the House vote on the bankruptcy bill. Some 73 Democrats sided with the GOP on the vote, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

That Democratic division on the vote left progressives, including Pelosi, chastising the moderates for betraying the party. Centrists, for their part, were furious that the larger Caucus didn’t respect their position — a position, they said, that is longstanding — and complained that Pelosi privately lambasted them for urging the GOP to bring the bill to the floor.

Pelosi said last week that she believes “we have moved on” from the bankruptcy bill and that Democrats are now focused on what unites them, including creating jobs, saving Social Security from privatization and expanding access to health care.

“Yes, from time to time, we will have our differences over bills,” she said. “That was not a bill that was whipped by our Caucus, and it was a situation where there was unhappiness on both sides. But I believe we have moved on from that.”

However, an aide to a moderate Member suggested that if Pelosi thinks the issues have been resolved, “she is disconnected” from her Caucus.

“The fact the very Members she offended are saying it’s not over clearly shows there is a disconnect,” the staffer said. “She believes she’s dealt with it. Her job is to resolve disputes and lead. This is almost like pouring oil on the fire.”

Moderates are still upset with Pelosi and the liberal wing for failing to acknowledge their contributions to the party. They believe they have been passed over on key committee assignments and often made to feel that they are not true to the party when they side with the GOP on legislation or because of their policy positions, sources said.

The progressives, for their part, believe that the party must stick together to win back the House and that divisions on votes and party politics do little to advance the Democratic agenda. They argue that the party cannot shift to the middle and expect to beat the GOP.

A centrist lawmaker said it will take time for the anger to subside but added that the tensions should be somewhat expected given that the Democratic Party is evolving politically and ideologically. Problems have been percolating for a while, and they won’t be patched up overnight, the Member said.

Since the boil-over about the vote, Pelosi has met individually and privately with some of the moderates to try to clear the air. Among those to meet with her are Hoyer, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and two leading New Democrats, Reps. Ron Kind (Wis.) and Adam Smith (Wash.).

Sources familiar with those sessions characterized them as at times tense and uncomfortable, while others were viewed more positively as a step in the right direction. Those sources uniformly said that the Members walked away without specific remedies to the larger issues facing the Caucus.

One aide to a centrist Democrat said the fact that Pelosi solicited meetings with upset Members shows “she truly is trying” to make things right in her Caucus.

“If a rift does exist — I don’t know if one does — she really does seem to want to work with the centrists,” the staffer said.

Aides to Pelosi insisted that the leader does appreciate the moderate and conservative voices and views them as an important part of the Caucus, noting that 16 of her 27 exclusive committee appointments have gone to Blue Dogs and New Democrats. One leadership staffer also pointed out that the Minority Leader often credits the conservative Blue Dog Democrats with making fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction a part of the larger party platform.

“There are a lot of areas where we agree, and some areas of disagreement,” one leadership source said. “But we respect each other and we will work through our differences.”

Even so, no additional meetings are currently planned between Pelosi and moderate Members, Caucus sources said. Those sources said both sides are taking a “wait and see” approach to the situation.

“Things are ongoing,” the Democratic leadership aide said.