Emerging Grievances Within Party Likely to Test Pelosi

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

Beneath the resounding Democratic victories of the past two weeks, tensions have been growing between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many new committee chairmen and other members over her aggressive management style and her approach to the war, according to lawmakers and advisers.

Powerful committee chairmen have bridled at the California Democrat's decision to impose six-year term limits on them. Liberal Democrats say she is being too cautious in confronting President Bush on the war in Iraq. Rank-and-file Democrats say she erred in denying Republicans more say in the early legislation, making the speaker appear autocratic.

And many Democrats complain that Pelosi is relying too heavily on a coterie of liberal allies from her home state and Massachusetts to the exclusion of more conservative lawmakers from the Midwest and the South.

The friction will present a growing challenge as Democrats move from the poll-tested, popular items that breezed through the House this month to more difficult legislative ventures, such as efforts to stem global warming, overhaul the nation's immigration laws, shrink the budget deficit and resolve the war in Iraq. It could also hand Republicans a powerful political weapon as they seek to regain power in 2008 by challenging the crop of new Democrats hailing from Republican-leaning districts.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) praised Pelosi for guiding through so many popular legislative items so quickly but pleaded for her to develop a more inclusive leadership style.

"If I had any advice, it would be 'Don't isolate yourself inside the territory you're most familiar with,' " Kaptur said last week. "I guess I would say to her, 'Don't be isolated by your California experience.' "

Pelosi aides and allies say she is doing her best to be inclusive, and to consult with the strong-willed old bull chairmen, but she must also make room for the new voices that helped the Democrats win back the majority. They said that although that will not be easy, most Democrats will be patient as the new majority settles in.

"I think we suffered the last time the Democrats were in power from too much chairman autonomy," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a Pelosi ally and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "Accusing the speaker of trying to manage public policy is like accusing the fire department of trying to fight fire."

Pelosi took over the speakership this month after a messy leadership fight in which she backed the losing candidate, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), for House majority leader. She then threw herself into her "hundred-hour" blitz.

In 2 1/2 weeks, the House adopted new rules to curtail the influence of lobbyists and control deficit spending, then passed half a dozen bills to increase the minimum wage, bolster homeland security, fund stem cell research, order the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare, cut some student-loan interest rates, and eliminate tax breaks for oil companies to finance alternative-energy research. On virtually every vote, Republicans joined united Democrats in droves.

But backstage, the firm -- some say heavy-handed -- style Pelosi used to ensure passage of those bills and deal with committee chairmen began to chafe.

Pelosi angered her chairmen and much of the Congressional Black Caucus with her decision to maintain a Republican rule limiting committee chairmanships to six years. Those chairmen and black members have waited years, even decades, to wield power as they patiently abided by the seniority system.

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