War Funding Bill Will Put Pelosi's Strength to the Test

Pelosi says Democrats now have the leverage to stand up to the president.
Pelosi says Democrats now have the leverage to stand up to the president. (By Melissa Golden -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

After years of seeing the House pushed around by President Bush, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has learned to say no.

The California Democrat's refusal last month to schedule a vote on a warrantless surveillance bill that the president favors, followed by her decision this month to scuttle a fast-track vote on a U.S.-Colombia trade agreement have shifted some power to the eastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But those tough stands also have raised expectations among antiwar activists and some lawmakers on the larger issue coming in the next two weeks: funding for the war in Iraq.

"What she's done is show people you can stand up to Bush and it's not the end of the world," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a prominent opponent of the Iraq war. "She reminded the rank-and-file here not only do we matter, but we're an equal branch of government, and she reminded the president we're no longer a cheap date."

Added Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for war funding: "She's got a hot hand right now. We want to make sure she keeps that momentum going."

For many Democrats, the standoffs on terrorist surveillance and the Colombia trade deal have been eye-opening for their lack of political fallout.

Republicans continue to say that Democratic opposition to the surveillance bill has jeopardized national security and strengthened al-Qaeda, and that failure to pass the U.S.-Colombia agreement has bolstered Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Raúl Castro in Cuba. But national security arguments that in the past have buckled Democratic opposition have had little impact this time.

"I think that the president has finally realized that the leverage has changed," Pelosi said. "That is the question: Who has the leverage? I think the president realizes now that we do."

In large part, Pelosi's new resolve comes from a changing political environment, according to Democratic aides. With the economy slowing, the war dragging on and Bush's popularity ratings as low as ever, swing-state Democrats are finding their reelection prospects improving steadily. That has given Pelosi more latitude in her confrontations with Republicans.

The economic downturn also has put the war funding fight in a new light, with domestic concerns now weighed against foreign policy ventures. Record gasoline prices have made assistance to oil-rich Iraq more difficult for lawmakers of both parties to accept.

"The Iraqi government has been grotesquely irresponsible with the money we have given them," grumbled Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Pelosi's allies also say the speaker's allegiance to the House and its prerogatives should not be discounted. "Many in this town continue to underestimate her commitment to this institution and her toughness," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of Pelosi's closest lieutenants.

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