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A vote of not much confidence in Nancy Pelosi

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 18, 2010;

History will record that Nancy Pelosi won her bid to remain House Democratic leader by a comfortable margin. But nobody who heard Democratic lawmakers going in and out of the Cannon Caucus Room on Wednesday could call it a victory.

"The truth is that Nancy Pelosi's season has passed," said Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), one of more than 60 Democrats who lost their seats on Election Day. "And she is the face of defeat."

"When you have taken the largest losses of any majority in my lifetime," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), who led an effort to postpone a vote on Pelosi's leadership bid, it's "time for reflection to better understand the reason for those losses."

And Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.), who called himself "one of Nancy Pelosi's closest friends here in the Congress," said that by holding Wednesday's vote to keep Pelosi as leader, Democrats "missed an opportunity today to send a signal to America that we understand what happened this past election."

The first rebuke of Pelosi by her colleagues came Tuesday, when Democratic dissidents forced a six-hour caucus meeting to vent their frustrations. The next blow came Wednesday, when the dissidents forced a secret ballot on whether to postpone a vote on Pelosi - and then won a larger-than-expected 68 votes. That essentially meant a vote of no-confidence in Pelosi by 35 percent of the incoming Democratic caucus.

And in yet another rebuke of the fallen speaker, 43 Democrats voted for her symbolic challenger, moderate Heath Shuler (N.C.) - even though few regarded Shuler as a qualified candidate and only a couple dozen of Shuler's colleagues in the moderate Blue Dog Coalition could vote. (The others had lost their seats, so could complain but not vote.)

"There are more than just the Blue Dogs who have a concern with what is going on," Shuler told reporters after the vote, "and that message has been loud and clear.... There was a lot of unrest in the room for now several hours."

Pelosi's office had originally expected caucus elections to wrap up at 1 p.m., but she didn't appear before the cameras until 3:52 p.m., and she had trouble forcing her usual smile. "Over 60 House Democrats lost in this cycle," NBC's Luke Russert reminded her, with the cameras rolling. "Your positive rating with independents... stands at 8 percent."

"How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?" Pelosi retorted to the 25-year-old correspondent.

Earlier, as the closed-door session dragged on, the soon-to-be-minority lawmakers grew restless. Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), taking a break from the proceedings, told reporters that his colleagues were delayed because "they're having trouble spelling 'Murkowski' " - a reference to the write-in dispute in the Alaska Senate race.

While Pelosi worked inside the caucus room to put down the rebellion, her critics got some face time with the more than 50 reporters waiting outside the door. The most caustic of those critics was Boyd, who had lost his bid for an eighth term. "It might be unprecedented that a speaker who presided over that large of a loss... would then continue to stay on as the leader of the party," he said.

So did Pelosi deserve some blame for his own loss? "Absolutely," Boyd said, adding that "at some point in time, you have to put your personal agenda and ambitions aside for the good of the country."

Even Pelosi "friend" Pascrell spoke before the TV cameras about failings under her leadership, saying, "We put many of our members in jeopardy by voting on bills that were never going to be taken up in the United States Senate." DeFazio, in turn, said, "The greatest failing in this Congress was that the House was basically acting as a - it enabled the White House."

After her long and contentious meeting, Pelosi emerged to face reporters. She fiddled with her necklace and licked her lips as Rep. John Larson (Conn.) introduced her as "our great leader."

"I wish all of America could have seen our caucus today," she said.

A reporter asked what she would say to voters who expected a change and now see the same Democratic leaders in place. "The message we received from the American people is they want a job," Pelosi replied.

And no American wants a job more than Pelosi wants hers as head of the House Democrats.

As the leadership team began to walk away, Larson felt the need to say one more thing in Pelosi's defense. "They know her will! Most important, they know her heart!" he blurted out, causing the recessional to freeze in mid-retreat. "And that was what was felt today: the heartfelt feeling of this caucus behind this great leader!"

Some of them just have trouble expressing their affection for the great leader.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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