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Nancy Pelosi's Balancing Act

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, April 9, 2009

"I give Republicans credit for this: They vote the way they believe. . . . I think that they vote with more integrity than they get credit for."

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That review of Republican motivations and commitments comes not courtesy of a partisan blog but from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House.

During an interview at the Capitol shortly after Congress broke for its recess, Pelosi spoke a simple truth too often ignored in the tiresome laments about the loss of bipartisanship in Washington. "If you can't find common ground, that doesn't mean you're partisan," she said. "It just means you believe two different things."

The congressional break comes at a moment when one cliche about Pelosi -- that she was a San Francisco liberal imposing her agenda on our pragmatic new president -- should be disposed of for good.

How many times earlier this year did you hear a variation on "Obama let Pelosi write the stimulus"? As Pelosi noted, "Anybody who knows Barack Obama knows that he's going to have the recovery package that he wants."

Republicans seem to have realized that this argument wasn't working, so they have taken to criticizing President Obama directly. Recent polls suggest this strategy isn't helping the GOP much, either.

Compared with her recent predecessors, Pelosi is a strong speaker of the House. She has not centralized power as much as Newt Gingrich did in the 1990s, but she has far more control than did Tom Foley, the previous Democratic speaker.

She also faces a Republican Party that is much more conservative and Southern than it used to be. It's easy to forget how dramatic the shift has been over time -- and therefore easy to miss how much of the current nostalgia for bipartisanship is unrealistic.

In the Congress elected in 1960, there were 174 Republicans. Only seven came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, while 35 came from New York or New England, the heartlands of moderate Republicanism.

In the current Congress, 72 of the 178 Republicans come from the Old Confederacy. Almost all of them are deeply conservative. There is not a single Republican House member from New England, and there are only three from New York.

Yet Pelosi knows that her own majority still depends on members elected from relatively conservative rural and suburban districts. Of the 254 House Democrats -- it takes 218 to form a majority -- 49 come from districts John McCain carried last year, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis.


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