Pelosi's influence fades in House and her party

McClatchy NewspapersApril 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's power waned just a little bit more Thursday, the latest comedown for a 71-year-old politician who lost her gavel.

Some fellow Democrats are deserting her. She was seemingly absent from recent high-stakes negotiations that averted a government shutdown, though behind-the-scenes her influence could still be felt. Her chief deputy, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, seems primed for more prominent deal-making, some colleagues believe.

And even as the House on Thursday approved a major budget-cutting bill, Pelosi took herself out of the action.

"I feel no ownership of that, or any responsibility to it," Pelosi said of the budget-cutting bill.

As the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, from 2007 until the GOP took control of the chamber in January, Pelosi ran a famously controlled operation. Perhaps more than any other single lawmaker or official, she muscled across the finish line massive health care reform legislation. House Democrats crossed her at their peril.

Now, Pelosi is playing a very different role as the minority leader of a party that's outnumbered 241-192 in the House. In some areas, like fundraising, she's still formidable. In others, like negotiating the recent budget deal or rallying disparate troops, her record is mixed.

"There are divisions in the (Democratic) caucus," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., "and I don't know that she's put a great deal of effort into dealing with those divisions."

Costa is a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and one of 19 House Democrats not to support Pelosi for party leader earlier this year. In a secret ballot in November, 43 House Democrats cast protest votes for Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina instead of Pelosi.

Pelosi and her allies say she's wielding the power of the minority leader to speak out against the majority.

"What's critical about being in the minority is in drawing a distinction between the two parties," Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. "We have to speak with one voice, and the leader has been very effective in working with all members of the caucus."

There are also behind-the-scene actions that never make headlines but can still shape events, such as Pelosi's private conversations with the president. Sometimes, a tactical decision may be made to let others take the lead.

Still, some apparent tensions among Democrats can undermine party unity.

In February, for instance, 19 Blue Dog members convened in New York for a retreat. By happenstance, Pelosi was staying in the same Loews Regency Hotel. But though Pelosi was perfectly pleasant while encountering the Blue Dogs in the hotel lobby, the lawmakers noted she didn't take the opportunity to initiate a group meeting.

Pelosi played no significant role in the long-running negotiations that culminated in the $1 trillion spending bill approved Thursday. Her absence, in time, generated its own buzz on Capitol Hill.

At 2 p.m. last Friday, for instance, Pelosi was delivering a lecture at Tufts University outside Boston, where she reflected on her career and public service. At that same time, White House and congressional negotiators were furiously trying to cut the deal that would avoid a government shutdown.

"The Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate were the two majorities," Pelosi explained. "They were the ones who had the vote, so they had the strength to negotiate, and the president presided over that."

Mere hours before the House approved the budget-cutting bill 260-167 Thursday, Pelosi insisted she was still studying the 459-page measure. Hoyer, meanwhile, was pushing for its passage.

Pelosi ultimately voted against the bill, while 81 of her fellow Democrats joined Hoyer in voting for it. Pelosi didn't speak on the House floor.

Adding insult to injury, the budget deal took a bite out of one of Pelosi's own hometown priorities. The package cuts $8 million from San Francisco's Presidio Trust; the best Pelosi could do was avoid having the funding eliminated altogether, as House Republicans and 15 Democrats had earlier proposed.

In part, reduced stature comes with the territory. In the House, more than the Senate, the majority can run roughshod over the minority.

"If you were to ask me, 'Did she step up to the plate?' I would say, where was her opportunity?" said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., added that Pelosi's leadership role has changed from agenda-setting to "defending our principles." At that, Garamendi said, Pelosi still excels.

Pelosi remains, as well, an indefatigable fundraiser.

On March 31, for instance, Pelosi's leadership political action committee scooped up $5,000 contributions during a breakfast reception held at Washington's Liaison Hotel. More broadly, colleagues say, she's a big reason why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was able to report Thursday that it had raised a record $19.6 million during the first quarter of the year.

"Total credit," Garamendi said, when asked about Pelosi's role in the big fundraising quarter. "Total."

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