Pelosi Starts Left, Then Makes Deals

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:35pm

No Congressional Democrat was more outspoken than Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this summer in opposing new offshore drilling. She frequently called Republican arguments for achieving energy independence through expanded drilling off the coasts “a hoax.” She often said it would reduce gasoline prices by only 2 cents per gallon in 10 years.

“This is a deadly serious issue,” she told reporters on July 24. “It is the economic life of America’s families, and to suggest drilling offshore is going to make a difference to them paycheck-to-paycheck now is a frivolous contention.”

That was then. A week later, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) suggested he could support more offshore drilling as part of a broader package of energy measures. The switch by the party’s presidential nominee came as House Democrats were arriving back home for the August recess to constituents angry over soaring gas prices, while House Republicans were staying behind on Capitol Hill to launch what would become a weeks-long protest on the issue.

With the political heat near boiling, Pelosi went on ABC on Aug. 4 and said she would be willing to consider expanded drilling along with other items. She capped her backtrack Tuesday night when the House voted largely on partisan lines to approve an energy package that authorizes drilling in previously protected coastal areas while financing development of alternative energy sources. Pelosi called it a “great victory for a new energy policy.”

It was not the first time that Pelosi the lawmaker, representing a San Francisco district that ranks among the most liberal in the nation, staked out a position that Pelosi the Speaker later had to revise. That dynamic has become a hallmark of her leadership style. Guiding her Democratic Caucus from its front lines, she frequently articulates positions from the progressive wing. When it comes time to craft a compromise that will unite the party, she sometimes presents measures stocked with provisions she personally opposes.

“She didn’t like it, but she didn’t hesitate a second once she recognized what the realities were, and that she had to take personal ownership of it, which she did,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), the lead Democrat behind a bipartisan alternative to what lawmakers ended up approving.

Rather than alienate progressives, Pelosi’s approach appears to have won their admiration.

“She’s the Speaker of the House, and when you’re in the majority, you don’t have the luxury to sit back and insist on what you think is the perfect alternative,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who voted for the bill. “You’ve got to move things forward.”

McGovern, however, opposed another compromise this year — this one on electronic wiretapping — that echoed a similar Pelosi maneuver of moving from the left to the center. The final agreement — hashed out by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — won Pelosi’s backing in June under intense political pressure.

The deal riled liberals by guaranteeing immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in a secret government spying program. But it also preserved the program, hailed by Republicans as a key anti-terrorism tool, and for the first time brought it under the law. Passing the measure took a national security issue off the table for the GOP, but its final form was objectionable enough to House Democrats that most voted against it. Pelosi was not among them. Although a vocal critic of the telecommunications companies, she called approving the measure “the work that we have to do.”

An opponent of the Iraq War from the outset, Pelosi claimed the Speaker’s gavel last year in part by pledging to bring the conflict to a close. She has engineered passage of five measures that included timelines for redeploying American troops, but only one cleared the Senate, and President Bush vetoed it. She has nevertheless steered through her chamber multiple supplemental spending bills to fund the war — measures she has voted against.

“Liberals like me understand the realities up here. We don’t have the votes to end the war,” McGovern said. “Until we can get a different president, and get a working majority in the Senate, we’re not going to be able to end this war. That’s the conclusion I think many of us who represent the progressive or liberal wing of the party understand.”

That is not the conclusion drawn by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who is running as an Independent to unseat Pelosi. Sheehan is challenging Pelosi from the left, criticizing the Democrat for not bringing articles of impeachment against Bush and charging she has not done enough to end the war. No one gives her a serious shot. Pelosi for years has carried her district by around 80 percent.

In the House, the demands of national leadership rarely imperil lawmakers back home. When then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) was ousted in the 1994 Republican revolution, he was the first sitting Speaker to lose a re-election bid since 1860.

For Pelosi, leading from the left has political and tactical benefits. Beyond shoring her up at home, staking out progressive positions strengthens her negotiating hand, Democratic lawmakers and aides said.

“It’s her way of establishing where she stands, so when she has to compromise, people realize why she’s doing it,” one senior Democratic aide said. “She uses that tactic with Members: ‘Nobody’s more opposed to drilling than me.’ If you’re mushy from the beginning, you’re less effective.”

Rep. Mike Capuano (Mass.), a liberal Democrat, said everybody “sets a marker that says, ‘Here’s where I am, now make me move.’ The question is really whether you’re capable of moving. A good leader is. I think she does a great job compromising as much and as little as she has to.”

The trick could get tougher to pull off next year. With Democrats looking to expand their majorities in both chambers and take the White House, the liberal wing could expect more for its agenda.

“Under that scenario, I have high expectations that we cannot only get a lot done, but that what we can get done is more aligned with what people like me believe need to get done,” McGovern said.

Ditto for moderate Democrats, who will argue they are providing the party with its margin of victory. An aide to a moderate Democrat acknowledged, “There’s going to be a lot of pressure to do that giant wish list of stuff the liberals have always wanted.

“But if Pelosi wants to keep her majority, we need to start addressing the health and vibrancy of the middle class. If we don’t, there will be a rout at the end of 2010,” this aide said.

On the energy bill, prospects for sending a package to the White House this year are shaky at best. Time is running out, and it’s not clear the Senate can produce its own version and negotiate a compromise with the House before lawmakers head home to campaign. House Republican leaders, meanwhile, are blasting the measure that passed Tuesday as a sham that will not produce new energy.

Regardless, Abercrombie called it both a triumph for Pelosi and a difficult outcome for her personally. It was a case he made on the House floor Tuesday night as he argued against a Republican attempt to offer the measure he co-authored as an alternative to the Democratic package.

“Believe me, when the Speaker came around on this, and it’s one of the reasons I feel we should move forward with the bill, the Speaker doesn’t want this bill, believe me,” he said. “But she is not the leader of the California delegation. She is the Speaker of the House, and she feels that something has to move along, even if she doesn’t approve of most of the provisions that are in here, if she had her own personal way.”