Inside Nancy Pelosi’s drive to win the House majority back for democrats

Nancy Pelosi no longer has a balcony with the grandest view in Washington. The size of her staff has been cut by a third. And it took months, she said, to get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke from the second-floor suite she received in her swap with now-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

In the corridor where the House minority leader greets visitors hangs but one decoration: a photo of her at the front of the House chamber, lifting the gavel in triumph, on Jan. 5, 2007. That was the day she was sworn in as the nation’s first female speaker, arguably the most powerful post any woman has held in the nation’s history.

The fact that the pale-yellow walls remain bare suggests that Pelosi has no intention of getting settled in her new offices. What drives her these days is the realization that, with the party’s upset victory in last month’s special election in a heavily Republican Upstate New York district, Democrats need just two dozen seats to take back their majority.

“I feel comfortable about our ability to win it back,” Pelosi said in an interview, as she approached the six-month mark of being in the minority again. “I have a sense of responsibility to win it back, a plan to do so, and a confidence that it is very much possible to do so.”

And yet the challenges and frustrations are evident. Pelosi can no longer get things done in the House — or stop them. She and her diminished caucus have been rendered all but irrelevant as President Obama and congressional Republicans accelerate the fight over spending, taxes and debt.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a close confidant of Pelosi’s, acknowledged the tensions between the White House and House Democrats. “Not great. Not great,” Miller said. “Listen, this is a rough-and-tumble world, but I think their relationship with the caucus has not been good.”

But while Pelosi has been largely absent from the ongoing negotiations over lifting the debt ceiling, she may yet have a role to play, as it becomes clearer how difficult it will be to bring around enough Republican votes to pass it.

On Friday night, Pelosi found herself onstage in Lexington, Ky., between Boehner and former congressman J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the man she had unseated as speaker. They were there to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Henry Clay’s speakership.

As the three speakers discussed the legacy of the man who went down in history as the “Great Compromiser,” Pelosi noted that few issues are more difficult than asking members to go on record in favor of deeper indebtedness.

“The speaker has all of my sympathy,” she told Boehner, not very convincingly.

“Can we get any of your votes?” he shot back.

On Sunday, Pelosi indicated in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Republicans shouldn’t count on support from her caucus for the legislation — which must pass by early August to avoid a default on the nation’s debt — unless they are willing to consider boosting taxes as well as cutting spending.

“We’ve all said we would vote for the full faith and credit of the United States to be honored by voting for this increase in the debt ceiling,” the Democratic leader said. “If they don’t want to do taxes, maybe they don’t want to do anything.”

Increasing her profile

The interview marked her second Sunday-show appearance in a month, part of a strategy to increase her profile again.

Not that House Democrats themselves are united. The caucus regularly splits into factions on votes ranging from taxes to federal spending to intelligence surveillance. A Washington Post database of House votes shows that 22 House Democrats have voted at least 20 percent of the time against a majority of their own caucus this year, compared with only five Democrats who were out of step that often in 2009 and 2010.

At times, Pelosi has found it difficult to enforce her will. It took weeks before Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) resigned amid revelations that he sent inappropriate photos to women over the Internet, despite Pelosi’s private and then public pressure. In the meantime, virtually no other message could break through the scandal, and Democratic fundraising all but dried up, according to one official who had access to the numbers.

Democrats say privately that if she can’t deliver the majority back next year, Pelosi’s days as leader are probably over. And even if she does, they may decide it is time for a team of fresher faces. At the beginning of this congressional session, 19 of her Democratic colleagues delivered a symbolic rebuke by voting against her for speaker.

Though her party lost a staggering 63 House seats in last year’s midterms — a defeat Pelosi blames on the economy, not the aggressive agenda she set — she insisted it is primed for 2012.

“A presidential year— that’s a completely different story,” she said.

Playing offense

Instead of having to defend Democratic seats in Republican territory, her party will be playing offense, Pelosi argued, zeroing in on the 60 GOP members who represent districts that Obama carried in 2008.

And in the GOP efforts to revamp the program that provides health benefits to the elderly, Pelosi thinks she has been handed a gift. “Our three most important issues: Medicare, Medicare and Medicare,” she said.

The speakership used to be a post with job security. But that is no longer true in an era in which voters are more restive and the political culture is rougher on those who hold power. In the past 21 years, five speakers have been forced out, either by scandal or by political upheaval.

What makes Pelosi different is not that she lost that cherished gavel — but that she didn’t head for the exit when she did. Pelosi is the first former speaker since Sam Rayburn, more than half a century ago, to remain in the House as the head of her party and to fight to get her majority back.

She calls it her “faith-based initiative,” and it is indeed an endeavor to make her fellow Democrats believe again.

The obstacles are formidable. In many parts of the country, Pelosi is seen as the embodiment of liberal government overreach, which is why she is rarely invited to make public appearances in moderate districts.

The then-speaker had a starring role in 72 of the 112 campaign ads the GOP produced last year. The party hung a big red banner that said “FIRE PELOSI” from Republican National Committee headquarters. Her name remains an applause line — and not in a good way — in Republican campaign speeches.

“For many Americans, Pelosi serves as both a reference point for everything that is wrong with Washington and a chilling reminder that the goal for Democrats is to return her to the speaker’s chair,” said Paul Lindsay, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director.

All of which Pelosi dismisses as a backhanded tribute.

‘I came here to do a job’

“If I were not effective, if I hadn’t passed health care and Wall Street [regulatory overhaul] and the rest, I would not have been the target that I was,” she said. “I came here to do a job. I didn’t come here to keep a job.”

But if Pelosi wears her scars as a badge of honor, her closest allies don’t hide their feelings of grievance on her behalf. In their view, their party — and their president — should have done a better job defending a speaker who had delivered so much.

“It was a wide-open season on her,” Miller said. “A lesser person would not have survived with the ability to rally her caucus and move forward. Given her accomplishments and what she achieved, from the president on down, people could have done something.”

Pelosi conveys no grudges.

“I have absolutely no problem with my relations with the White House,” she said. “I have complete access on any subject that I want to talk to them about. I understand why they have to do certain things, and they understand why I have to do certain things. We give each other room.”

The main reason she stayed as leader, Pelosi said, was to protect her caucus’s accomplishments — chiefly, the passage of health-care overhaul — from Republican efforts to dismantle them. But Pelosi was also mindful of the signal it might have sent to other women if she had quit.

“It’s important to me that women young in politics — they’re coming out of the kitchen as I did — are not deterred because of sexism or chauvinism [or the idea that] you can say or do anything about a woman and people will believe it,” she said.

Pelosi remains popular with the party’s liberal base, perhaps even more so amid anxiety that the president is tacking centrist to gird for a tough reelection fight.

After her announcement in December that she intended to remain as leader of her battered party in the minority, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised a record $1 million in three weeks, said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), whom Pelosi recruited to take over the committee.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job unless she was the Democratic leader,” Israel said, adding that he and Pelosi talk by phone at least two or three times a day, including on weekends.

A punishing schedule

At 71, she maintains a punishing schedule: She has done 129 fundraisers in two dozen cities since the election, bringing in nearly $11 million for House Democrats.

In the first quarter, the out-of-power House Democrats’ campaign committee hauled in a record $19.6 million and outraised its Republican counterpart by $1.6 million. In April and May, however, House Democrats fell behind the GOP. The challenge is likely to grow as the election season kicks into gear and they are forced to compete with the presidential reelection campaign and Senate Democrats, whose majority is in danger.

When Congress is in session, Pelosi frequently hosts breakfasts and dinners in Washington for major donors. Many lunch hours find her a few blocks away from the Capitol in a conference room at the DCCC headquarters, where she has aides dialing two phones at once.

Pelosi has become a big fan of social networking as a political tool — and is working to make herself more tech-savvy as well.

In February, she got her first iPhone and followed that with the purchase of an iPad. Although her favorite use for it is viewing pictures of her grandchildren, she has been known to play a game or two of Angry Birds.

She recently urged her members to get the word out through Twitter on the Republican Medicare plan. “What does a 500-lb. canary say? Tweeeeet!” she told a reporter, flapping her arms.

Pelosi grew up in politics as the daughter of the mayor of Baltimore, and she has been building and nurturing her network of supporters since her days as a wealthy housewife and Democratic activist in San Francisco. She makes a point of getting in touch on their birthdays and their children’s graduations.

She knows which donors want to talk politics and which Middle East policy. Every August, she hosts a two-day “issues conference” in Napa Valley, bringing together high-dollar contributors for briefings with leading Democratic officials and experts, including economists; when she discovered that this year’s gathering would conflict with the wedding of a longtime donor’s daughter, she moved the date to July.

Still, Pelosi argued, “the reason I’m successful at what I do in terms of fundraising is I really believe in something. It’s not just about having a Rolodex. It’s about the case that you make.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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