CAMBRIDGE, Md. — It had been a good week — a very good week — for Nancy Pelosi. So good, in fact, that she and her leadership team felt the need to caution their House Democratic troops not to gloat over the fact that they had scored a clean win against the majority Republicans over raising the debt ceiling.
But as the House Democrats met for their annual retreat in this Eastern Shore town, there was one subject the minority leader appeared determined to avoid: her grim prospects for regaining the speaker’s gavel in this year’s midterm elections.
“That’s not what we’re here to do,” Pelosi said, brushing aside a reporter’s question about the outlook for November. “What we’re here to do is talk policy.”
There was a time when she would have welcomed an opportunity to strut her electoral strategy, to tick off which seats were in play and which issues could deal a mortal blow to the opposition.
In 2014, Nancy Pelosi is a lioness in winter.
A little over a month from now, the San Francisco congresswoman, who holds the distinction of having been the first female House speaker in U.S. history, will turn 74. By the reckoning of many scholars and historians, she was one of the most powerful speakers in modern times — and one of the most polarizing.
Now, Pelosi finds herself with fewer and fewer peers in the House. Her friend and consigliere, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), has decided to retire, as has key ally Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who is regarded as his party’s most able legislator. More departures may be in the offing as well.
Pelosi, however, keeps going. She raised money for her party at full tilt last year, collecting $35 million — her most ever, aides say, and far surpassing the $27 million she had brought in at a comparable point in the last cycle. Her fundraising buttressed the House Democrats’ campaign arm, which outraised its GOP counterpart by $15 million last year.
Pelosi argues that Democrats will ultimately be vindicated on the new health-care law, which she counts as her biggest achievement. And even with her party in the minority, she plans to make Republicans squirm on issues such as raising the minimum wage, rewriting immigration laws, extending unemployment benefits and assuring equitable pay for women.
Publicly, Pelosi says that she has no plans to retire or step back, and those around her say she has given no such indication privately.
“She has often said she is not in Congress on a shift. She’s on a mission,” with more work to do, spokesman Drew Hammill said.
And yet, as long as her party remains in the minority, the future holds little opportunity, other than winning the occasional skirmish against the badly fractured GOP majority.
Barring an unexpected change in the political climate, Pelosi’s days of passing big, bold, liberal initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act are probably behind her.
In his speech at the House Democrats’ retreat, President Obama seemed to acknowledge as much.
At that same event a year ago, the president had offered a sunny prediction: “I would expect that Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker again pretty soon.”
But Friday, he merely wished her a happy Valentine’s Day and praised her for holding her caucus together, especially during Tuesday’s vote to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, in which only two of her troops defected.
As a result of the Democrats’ unity on the issue, the no-strings-attached measure passed with the support of only 28 Republicans — and may have ended a cycle in which the debt ceiling has repeatedly been employed by the GOP as a means of manufacturing a showdown with Democrats.
“The fact that we are no longer going to see, I believe, anybody try to hold our government hostage and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States of America in order to contract policy concessions — the fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit — is just one example of why, when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, the country is better off,” the president said.
Obama, however, did not offer any happy talk for the electoral season ahead. In fact, he touched on it only briefly, when he thanked Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for “doing an extraordinary job under very difficult circumstances.”
Democrats need to win back 17 seats in November to retake the House, which would defy history. Generally, midterm elections are tough on the party of a president in his sixth year, and the persistent unpopularity of the new health-care law could prove a further drag. Indeed, Democrats are struggling to avoid losing the Senate, too.
The House Democratic leadership is a trio of septuagenarians — Pelosi, minority whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and assistant whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — who collectively have served more than 80 years in Congress.
There are no outward signs that House Democrats are anxious to see a transition to a new generation, partly because there are no obvious replacements.
Democratic members also say that they are generally content with the team they have in place. They do not blame their leaders for the political situation in which they find themselves this year.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the campaign committee’s finance chairman, said that the House Democratic caucus has no illusions about its prospects.
“It’s not pessimism, just as it’s not optimism — it’s not pessimism. It’s just cold-hard realism,” he said, stressing that while the DCCC has raised considerable sums of money, it is preparing for an onslaught of super PAC-funded TV attack ads.
At the retreat, Himes said, there was no focus on the future of Pelosi or her deputies.
“There is absolutely no talk — even after three or four drinks — about, is our leadership not doing the right thing? There’s an awful lot of confidence in leadership,” he said.
But there also appears to be an effort to put others forward as the face of the party.
On Thursday, for instance, Pelosi was joined by several women Democratic lawmakers who have been working on ways to achieve pay equity, boost access to paid child-care services and increase the minimum wage.
Pelosi was flanked by Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a longtime ally and friend, and younger members, including Reps. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and freshmen Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) and Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio).
Pelosi left most of the talking to the members, who introduced a two-minute online video that showed dozens of Democratic lawmakers holding up paper hearts with words describing “What women need.”
In the video, Pelosi made only a fleeting appearance, silently holding a sign that said: “Quality, affordable childcare.”
Close aides say that they have no clue what Pelosi intends to do in the long run. But they add that there’s one scenario that could entice her to stick around: the prospect of serving as speaker again, working with a president named Hillary Rodham Clinton.