A tough week for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Rafael Suanes / MCT

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi found herself in a tight spot this week over her support for a resolution condemning the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of Armenians more than 90 years ago.

Pelosi didn't take President Bush's advice that the resolution would alienate Turkey, a NATO ally that plays a key support role in the war in Iraq. Some 70 percent of the U.S. military air cargo entering Iraq goes through Turkey, as do an estimated 3,000 trucks each day.

Turkey, one of America's closest Muslim allies, responded to the resolution by recalling its ambassador to the United States — a stern diplomatic signal — and threatening to chill cooperation with America in the region.

The result: Many House members found Bush's argument persuasive and withdrew their support for the resolution. It started with 226 co-sponsors and a solid majority, but so many dropped off that it's now unlikely that Pelosi will even bring it up for a vote.

The drama was an unusual public slip-up for the nation's first woman speaker, and it's raised questions about her judgment and priorities. Still, expert Congress watchers say it doesn't outweigh her overall success in holding House Democrats together and getting things done. But the incident sheds light on how House Democrats operate and the difficulties that lie ahead for them.

Pelosi, D-Calif., said she's long supported a resolution on the Armenian genocide. The resolution declared that 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. Turkish leaders acknowledge that many died, but deny that there was genocide — the intentional destruction of an entire people.

Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, said she didn't try to persuade Democrats to vote for it, but left it to each member to decide.

Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he doesn't fault Pelosi. She didn't orchestrate the vote, but agreed to it after the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed it. And, Ornstein said, she was listening to Armenian-American constituents who've pressed the resolution for years.

Still, Ornstein conceded, in the end, strong intervention by Bush and defense secretary Robert Gates averted "a major foreign policy disaster."

Nevertheless, he and other scholars said that, generally speaking, Pelosi has maintained unity among often fractious House Democrats. The result has been "some pretty responsible legislation," he said, including ethics and lobbying reform, housing finance reform and a reduction in interest rates on many student loans.

Pelosi also helped get a minimum wage increase, a high priority for Democrats, signed into law over opposition from Bush and his fellow Republicans.

But Pelosi also must consider how much pressure she can put on politically vulnerable Democrats. Some are freshmen elected largely on opposition to the Iraq war from districts that otherwise lean Republican.

"These people are comfortable with the anti-war debates, but when it shifts to other topics, they might not find their districts as receptive," said Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Franc said that Pelosi could be more inclusive if she'd reach out more for the views of low-ranking Democrats and tell committee chairmen to do the same. But that's not so easy. Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., must deal with committee chairmen who previously held powerful positions when Democrats were the majority, and "the speaker can't easily say, 'You won't be as powerful now,' " he said.

Still, Pelosi and Hoyer have some power over the chairmen, because the two top Democrats control which bills get to the House floor.

But that's complicated, too.

Pelosi wanted her ally John Murtha, D-Pa., as majority leader, but House Democrats chose Hoyer. Both Pelosi and Hoyer have their own loyalists.

Franc said it was "almost unforgivable" to get so far along on a bill and then pull it. But that was different, he said, than what happened with a bill to set rules for government eavesdropping, which also went missing in action this week.

Republicans used a procedural maneuver to block a vote on the eavesdropping bill, so Democrats pulled it. The result is likely to be a week's delay.

Asked if she saw the two developments as setbacks, Pelosi said: "No. This is the legislative process."

She predicted that House Democrats have enough votes to prevail on the eavesdropping bill, which updates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. On the Armenia resolution, she said that, "Congress will work its will on that."

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a subcommittee chairman on the Appropriations Committee and a former political science professor at Duke University, said that Pelosi has good discipline and decision-making skills, and that she's listened to all.

"She has charm and a winsome manner, but nobody should mistake that for a lack of toughness," he said.

On Iraq, Pelosi has gotten "plenty of free advice" from the large Out of Iraq caucus and from moderate Democrats as well, Price said.

The House has passed measures containing a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, only to face a veto from President Bush and a failure by Senate Democrats to muster the 60 votes needed under a procedural rule.

Pelosi has said that Democrats won't give up trying to end the war.

Price said Democratic leaders would consider attaching conditions to a war-spending bill and other measures on Iraq that have broad support and, taken together, could steer policy in a new direction.

Donald Wolfensberger, the director of the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, a Washington research organization, said that Pelosi has probably angered her natural allies in the Out of Iraq Caucus even as she's adroitly juggled different factions in her party.

But Wolfensberger said she hasn't followed through on promises to be more fair and open than her Republican predecessors were.

Ornstein agreed that Democrats haven't been as open as they should be. There have been too many "closed rules" (a procedure for not allowing amendments, so the House must accept or reject a bill "as is") and too many bills coming up with little advance notice, he said.

Bill Frenzel of the centrist Brookings Institution, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, said that all speakers do better in their first year, when members of their party give them special support. Later, committee chairmen flex their muscles and the rank and file feel more independent, especially as elections near. Things also could change when Democrats take up more controversial matters, he said.

"So far the speaker has done well," Frenzel said, "but the job is getting harder every day."

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