Pelosi Follows Familiar Path

Liberal Speaker Often Shifts to Center to Pass Bills

Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:54pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled a new willingness to deal on health care reform last week when she said she had no non- negotiable demands for the over­­haul.

It appeared to mark a shift from her position, stated unequivocally for weeks, that she needed a strong public insurance option to pass a bill through the House.

“This is about a goal. It’s not about provisions,— she said Thursday.

For longtime Pelosi watchers, the change in tone followed a familiar script: In leading a liberal-heavy Caucus, she has frequently staked out left-leaning positions in big debates only to moderate them when political reality necessitated.

The question now is whether she is following a pattern or whether it is something entirely different.

Some people close to Pelosi said she has not abandoned the public insurance option and is only seeking to create some breathing room for the various wings of her fractious Caucus in advance of a final negotiating push. Pelosi showed no new flexibility on the provision in an occasionally tense private huddle with leading fiscally conservative Blue Dogs last week, people familiar with that session said.

But the Speaker also cautioned liberals not to draw lines in the sand in a separate meeting with leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, suggesting she could be warming to a “trigger— that would only authorize a government-backed plan as a fallback.

That, together with Pelosi’s moderate public comments, suggested the old movie may be playing again. “She’s a good leader because she knows her Members and understands what their tolerance is,— Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said. “She’s acknowledging the reality that they don’t have much willingness to do more than the Senate will do.—

In the past, Pelosi has only inched toward the center after it became clear the debate had moved irreversibly in that direction — and there were ample signs of that happening with health care reform last week.

Obama seemed ready to throw key aspects of the House bill under the bus. He made a case for the public option but qualified it by voicing support for other approaches. And he endorsed a big new tax on high-cost insurance plans, an idea embraced by Republicans but vigorously rejected by the House Ways and Means Committee in favor of taxing the wealthy.

[IMGCAP(1)]That pleased opponents of the tax-the-rich approach, led by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who were all-but-declaring victory even though Ways and Means has yet to formally change its position.

“Clearly what Obama spoke to completely addresses away concerns I had about small businesses paying for the bill,— Polis said, and he called on House leaders to incorporate the Senate language in the bill. Liberals also seemed to be pivoting and willing to consider other options if a public insurance option ultimately is dropped.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), one of the 60 Members to sign a letter vowing to vote against a bill without a robust public insurance option, said, “Basically all that is seeking leverage.— Hastings said the key is bringing costs down, and a public insurance option does that. But Hastings said he could support something else that cuts costs as well. “They could call it a non-public option and I could vote for it,— he said.

Even Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who had issued a press release demanding a public insurance option with no triggers days before Obama’s speech, said she was “looking for a yes vote— and was encouraged by the president’s pledge that every American would have an “affordable choice.—

Supporters of the public insurance option “felt reassured,— she said, and Obama “put it in a larger context. … This isn’t the only thing in the bill.—

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he expects a public insurance option would still be in the House bill given that it is in all three House bills, but specifics will be up to the leadership.

Waxman and other top Democrats want the strongest possible bill to come out of the House before heading into a conference committee where they will have to compromise some of it away. But that will come down again to a power tussle between liberals and Blue Dogs and other Members from marginal districts, who have been asking leaders why they should have to walk the plank on a liberal bill that they don’t believe will make it out of a conference with the Senate.

“The challenge will be whether we listen to the president’s speech and have a more moderate approach,— said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a veteran Blue Dog. “If he was describing any bill, he was describing the Senate Finance bill,— he said. “That’s hard for the House to hear.—

But for Pelosi, it would hardly mean her first time bending to the reality of a more moderate Senate. In the previous Congress, she passed five measures that included timelines for ending the Iraq War, though only one cleared the Senate, and President George W. Bush vetoed it. But she also steered through multiple supplemental spending bills to fund the war — bills she voted against.

Last year, under intense political pressure, she grudgingly supported a compromise to bring the Bush administration’s secret electronic wiretapping program under the law, though it guaranteed immunity to telecommunications companies that may have broken the law by participating. And last summer, as soaring gas prices gave Republicans some rare political traction on a call to expand offshore drilling, Pelosi ultimately allowed the offshore drilling ban to expire without a vote.

The approach suited her need to keep faith with her Caucus’ liberal majority and a San Francisco constituency that’s among the most liberal in the nation while also moving necessary legislation in a closely divided town.

The difference now, of course, is that Democrats have an expanded majority in the Senate and one of their own in the White House. Liberal activists who motivated en masse to deliver Democrats to power last November have high expectations, and Pelosi is their most powerful advocate.

Some aides familiar with her thinking insist she is still busy trying to figure out what is possible to achieve in a complex and swiftly moving health care debate. “She’s fighting for the strongest bill she can get,— one staffer said.

The work continues this week with a public forum on Tuesday by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee to “highlight the urgent need for comprehensive health insurance reform.— That day, Democrats will also huddle privately for a Caucus meeting focused on the public insurance option. Similarly issue-specific sessions are expected later in the week, focused on seniors and small businesses. And Pelosi is set to convene follow-up meetings with leaders of the various caucuses.