Edging Away From Inner Circle, Pelosi Asserts Authority

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has united the Democrats and pushed the party's agenda through the House, but Congress's approval ratings, and her own, have fallen.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has united the Democrats and pushed the party's agenda through the House, but Congress's approval ratings, and her own, have fallen. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007

In February, only a month after becoming speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi settled weeks of threats from Rep. John D. Dingell, her blustery Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, by putting in writing her assent to one of his big demands -- Pelosi's new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming would not infringe on his power to write legislation as he saw fit.

Four months later, Dingell (D-Mich.) appeared in the speaker's conference room to walk through a bill that would override California's attempts to combat global warming by raising fuel efficiency standards, strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases and promote a controversial effort to turn coal into liquid fuel.

This time, Pelosi was in no mood to mollify Dingell. The bill he was sponsoring, she said, was unacceptable. The environmental costs would be too severe, the political costs for the Democratic caucus too high, she said.

The two episodes with Dingell illustrate Pelosi's evolution from a somewhat tentative political figure reliant on a small circle of advisers to the undisputed leader of the House's fractious Democratic majority.

"Nancy now represents the majority of this caucus, overwhelmingly," said Barney Frank (Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

But if Pelosi has succeeded in uniting her party during her initial months as speaker, she and the rest of the leadership have yet to convince the nation that the Democrats can govern.

Pelosi, of California, has succeeded in getting all of her opening agenda through the House. But few of the initiatives have made it to the president, and only one has become law: an increase in the minimum wage.

The obstacle has been the Senate, where Democrats hold only a one-seat advantage. But that failure has colored all of Congress, including Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership.

The new Democratic Congress took office in January with a 43 percent approval rating. Since then, its rating has sunk to about the same low levels as President Bush's, a bit below 30 percent. And Pelosi's own approval ratings have slipped, from 48 percent in a March poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to 36 percent last month in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll. Over the same time frame, her disapproval ratings climbed from 22 percent to 39 percent.

As the first speaker since Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to have to manage a new majority after a switch in party rule, Pelosi came in with an ambitious 100-hour agenda and some challenges that would quickly strain the Democratic caucus: finishing all of the government's domestic budget plans left undone by the Republicans, enacting an ethics program unpopular with many lawmakers and, most important, funding a war most Democrats oppose.

Pelosi faced an inherent conflict -- unite a Democratic majority or fulfill her promises to run a more transparent and bipartisan House. In her first six months, she has chosen the former, not without a price.

Combative Republicans repeatedly tried to use her initial openness against her. They tried to force a vote to end the District's gun ban as a price for giving the city a vote in the House and attempted to make Democrats vote on a GOP resolution declaring that the House would always fund the troops in Iraq, at a time when many liberals wanted to end funding. In both instances, Pelosi pulled the proposals before they were voted on, violating her pledges of bipartisanship but keeping Democratic unity intact.

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