Pelosi’s dilemma: Fuel the fires or practice what Biden preaches?

Speaker’s actions over coming month will test authenticity of her words

The contested election in Iowa’s 2nd District and calls to change the motion to recommit tool will test the sincerity of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appeal for the two parties to work together, Winston writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The contested election in Iowa’s 2nd District and calls to change the motion to recommit tool will test the sincerity of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appeal for the two parties to work together, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 9, 2020 at 6:00am

America today finds itself in that strange and unsettling twilight between a presidential  election and the inauguration, made even more distressing this year by a pandemic and an economic shutdown. People are more than ready to give political peace a chance.

In the month since the election, Joe Biden has offered up the expected call for unity, promising to “restore the nation’s soul” and claiming a “mandate for action on COVID, the economy, on climate change and systemic racism.” 

“This is the time to heal in America,” he told the country after the election.  “And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.”

Apparently, Nancy Pelosi didn’t get the memo. The speaker labors under her party’s misconception that Biden’s likely narrow victory is somehow an endorsement of a progressive platform that includes the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.” It isn’t.

In a news conference after the election, Pelosi wrongly claimed Biden had a “strong mandate to lead.” The ideological disarray in her own caucus belies her own argument.

More astonishing was her assertion that Biden will have a “strong Democratic House with him and many Democrats in the Senate,” adding, “We did not win every battle in the House, but we did win the war.”

In what universe does losing 11 seats (as of this writing) equate with victory when the top political analysts were predicting a double-digit pickup for House Democrats?  The last time we saw this kind of happy talk, Baghdad Bob famously told reporters on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, “There are no American troops in Baghdad,” as smoke and sirens filled the air behind him.  

When you lose seats like Florida’s 27th District or Iowa’s 2nd or Texas’ 23rd, perhaps a little introspection on the part of the speaker might be in order. Perhaps rethinking a progressive agenda that is at odds with a center-right country is a good first step. But if the events of the past couple of weeks are any indication, congressional Democrats are gearing up for more ideological battles, not preparing for peace talks.

Pelosi and Biden’s call for the nation to come together and unify around the Democrats’ progressive platform is, at this point, just rhetoric. Their actions leading up to the new Congress will be a better barometer of the authenticity of their extended hand. It will begin with what the Democrats decide to do with two closely contested congressional seats, Iowa’s 2nd and New York’s 22nd.

Overturning an election?

Almost 36 years ago, in 1985, Democrats opted to create a task force to determine the result in Indiana’s “Bloody 8th” District. The previous year, only a handful of votes separated Republican Rick McIntyre and Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey. In a partisan power grab, the task force chose to overturn McIntyre’s election, a victory that the Indiana secretary of state had certified, much like Iowa’s 2nd District today. 

That 1985 decision by Speaker Tip O’Neill and task force Chairman Leon Panetta began what has escalated into the brutal politics that now characterize our political campaigns and three long decades of increasingly bitter elections and Supreme Court nominations. 

Before opening this same legal Pandora’s box by seating the Democrats in those two contested races next year, Pelosi might want to consider whether voiding election certifications of duly empowered secretaries of state for partisan gain might have even broader, more serious ramifications than she anticipates.

She faces a real dilemma. With the slimmest of majorities and her own caucus divided, Pelosi’s ability to legislate is in question when the “squad” can stop centrist proposals and the Spanberger faction can do the same for progressive proposals. For Pelosi, every seat counts at this point, even if it may mean playing hardball with a couple of close contests. 

If she decides to repeat that mistake of O’Neill and Panetta, by ignoring the people’s vote and arbitrarily seating two Democrats, one whose opponent has been certified as the election winner, that will tell us a lot about the sincerity of her calls for the two parties to work together. 

Changing the rules

But she has another choice ahead of her. When anyone brings up the rules of the House (or the Senate, for that matter), there is a usually a collective roll of the eyes.  In the last few days, there has been talk that the Democrats are considering a rule change to what’s called the motion to recommit. 

It is a procedural move that allows the minority party to propose an amendment to a majority legislative proposal on the House floor in an effort to attract enough majority support to either amend or defeat the proposal. While most times a motion to recommit usually fails, Republicans have been more successful.  In 2019, they used the procedure, for example, to offer an amendment that would require the notification of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an illegal immigrant tried to buy a firearm.

Twenty-six more centrist Democrats abandoned their leadership to vote for the motion to recommit. At that time, Democrats had a 36-seat edge over Republicans.  Now, imagine the position Pelosi finds herself in today, with what is likely to be a narrow four- or five-seat voting margin in the next session. 

One way to solve the problem, of course, is to simply change the rules, and there are rumors that Democrats are considering what would be a drastic move by silencing the voice of the minority party in a deeply divided country. Democrats in the Senate are already talking about ending the filibuster if they prevail in the Georgia Senate runoffs, although West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has said he will not support the effort. Neither is a good idea.

This was a disastrous year for congressional Democrats. If Pelosi moves ahead with this attempt to rein in the rights of the minority party or to seat candidates who have not been duly elected, she would be doing nothing less than pouring gasoline on what is already a tinder-box political environment. 

After the election, Biden said, “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make.” For the country’s sake, let’s hope both Biden and Pelosi make the right one.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.