A new (and not-so-new) dynamic in Congress

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; A01

Two nights after the midterm elections, New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews saw a voice mail on his cellphone from the soon-to-be-former speaker of the House.

Andrews had a pretty good hunch what Nancy Pelosi wanted to talk about. So when he called her back the next morning, he got right to the point.

"I preempted it," he recalled. "I said, 'I hope you run.' "

Pelosi's decision to hang on as leader of the House Democrats has surprised and confounded much of Washington, including many in her own party. But if it is looked at through the windshield of what lies ahead, rather than the rearview mirror of the midterm election campaign, many argue, her skills as legislator and fundraiser are what's needed now.

"There are serious issues. There are serious challenges," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a close ally of Pelosi's. "Her talents are unique."

As are her liabilities. No figure in politics today is as toxic as Pelosi, if her starring role in thousands of Republican ads this year is any indication. Her favorable rating in recent polls has been below 30 percent.

The cleansing rites that follow political upheavals in Washington have generally demanded a human sacrifice from the losing side. It has also come to be expected that the speaker of the House should be the one offered up.

Not since Tip O'Neill retired in 1987, now five speakers ago, has there been a graceful and voluntary exit from the big chair at the front of the House chamber. Everyone since, whether giving up the gavel in electoral defeat or scandal, has done the expected thing and disappeared from the Capitol.

With the party losing at least 60 seats, about two dozen House Democrats have made public comments indicating they would rather see someone else in charge of their caucus.

Among the defectors have been such former Pelosi stalwarts as Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), whom she tapped to manage her transition team when Democrats won control of the House four years ago.

"If the Red Sox came in and lost every game of the year and they kept the manager at the end of the year, that's a problem,'' Capuano told the Boston Globe. "That's what we seem to be on the verge of doing."

Yet there are others who argue, just as strenuously, that Pelosi is irreplaceable.

No other House Democrat can match her at raising money, which is no small concern for a caucus that is out of power and headed into an election cycle in which the presidential and Senate races will get most of the resources.

With experience in leading both the minority and the majority in the House, Pelosi is also unsurpassed at counting votes and holding her caucus together. And her supporters predict that she will not be such a target in the new order of Washington, given the lower profile she will have as minority leader.

There is another factor that is working on Pelosi's behalf - mistrust of their own president on the part of many House Democrats, especially those who remember President Bill Clinton's famous "triangulation" strategy after the Democrats' defeats in 1994.

The most recent election wiped out many of the House's more moderate members, leaving a surviving caucus that is decidedly more liberal and determined to defend the expansion of government that has happened on their watch.

But with President Obama's reelection on the line, they worry the president will sell them out as Republicans move to roll back his policies. Pelosi, they believe, will push back against any reversal of the hard-fought policy gains - chief among them the health-care overhaul - that cost her caucus so much.

"The jury is still out" on what to expect from Obama, said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is regarded as the closest thing Pelosi has to a consigliere. "People are watching very carefully, but they know who they'd like to be seated at that table [in the White House] representing the members of the House."

Wrong signal?

Still, the prospect of having Pelosi in charge of regrouping her shattered caucus has caused some consternation within the ranks, especially from those who worry it sends the wrong signal in response to the resounding message they got from voters.

A handful of members have announced that they will not vote for her as speaker when the House takes the roll in January. But that is merely a symbolic rebuke, given that the new Republican majority will vote in their own speaker, John Boehner (Ohio).

The more telling thing - and the best measure of both the loyalty and fear that House Democrats feel where Pelosi is concerned - is that no one has stepped up to challenge her in the leadership elections set for Wednesday. Unlike the roll-call vote for speaker in January, that selection of party leaders is through a secret ballot.

Two Democratic lawmakers, Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and Peter DeFazio (Ore.), are circulating a letter arguing that the vote should be delayed until December.

"We cannot ignore the historical results of these elections," Kaptur and DeFazio wrote. ". . . We should not rush to elect a leadership slate next week, but rather spend more time to understand these historic losses. Before we chart a new path forward we need to understand where we erred to avoid repeating past mistakes."

Kaptur and DeFazio are seeking other signatures for their letter; no one has joined them as yet.

Pelosi, meanwhile, is not taking anything for granted.

Gathering support

Since the elections, Pelosi has been talking constantly to her members and has mobilized her outside allies in a muscular display of support. It has included declarations from women's groups and organized labor. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Monday that "America's public employees and all working families have never had a greater champion than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi."

She has granted a round of interviews with liberal media outlets and columnists, and on Wednesday she held what was billed as a thank-you reception for the groups that assisted her in the biggest legislative battles of the past two years.

Pelosi has also been working behind the scenes to settle the undercard contests for Democratic leadership spots, in light of the fact that the loss of the majority means there will be one fewer of them. Chief among her concerns is resolving a situation that has the Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) both competing for minority whip, the second-ranking spot.

Did Pelosi ever doubt that she should be part of the future for her party in the House?

"We are close, but this was a very personal decision," said DeLauro, adding that if there had been any anguish or self-recrimination on the speaker's part, "she never has shared any of that."

And while her decision may have come as a surprise to the rest of Washington, "there's a logic to it, and it's compelling," said Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar.

He added, "It's also a natural for Pelosi."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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