This is the second president — President Barack Obama being the first — who will owe the success of his agenda and presidency to Pelosi. Pelosi pulled the Affordable Care Act across the finish line with 219 votes in her own caucus (and one Republican), allowing 34 defections but securing the historic win for Obama. This week, with a much narrower majority, she defused a temper tantrum from nine members of her caucus who insisted on voting on the infrastructure bill before the reconciliation bill, a move that at least 100 Democrats opposed.
Stalemate! Logjam! Democrats in disarray! Puh-leez. It was inconceivable she would let such a stunning victory slip through her hands. (Her biographer and USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page recalls her favorite description of the speaker: “She is an iron fist in a Gucci glove.”) The justification for the nine members’ stunt was weak from the start. “Take the win" first is not a reason to torpedo both measures when a vote on both will occur.
It seems the nine members obstructed the caucus to obtain leverage in crafting the reconciliation package to junk the $10,000 limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. If so, they suffer from political tone-deafness, as the deductions primarily help wealthy homeowners in blue states. At a time when Democrats are contrasting their support for working- and middle-class Americans with the GOP’s defense of wealthy scofflaws, and when Democrats are searching for more revenue, restoring the SALT deductions was not going to happen.
The nine members bizarrely cast their opposition as a matter of principle or conscience. That did not persuade even moderate Democratic groups. A slew of actual moderates in the caucus (e.g., Reps. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia) were with the speaker and the majority of their caucus, not with the nine. With progressives, moderates and the White House arrayed against them, the nine members soon figured out they had painted themselves into a corner.
Pelosi held firm and eventually gave the renegade members the skimpiest of fig leaves. In a written statement, she declared, “I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage." A promise to try to pass a bill by a certain date, of course, is utterly unenforceable.
At her news conference on Wednesday morning, Pelosi called the agreement a “clarification,” a sly way to sustain the charade that moderates had gotten something while also diminishing its significance. She also pointed out that the infrastructure bill had to be put to a vote anyway by Sept. 30, so this was only a matter of a few days — another dig at the band of nine. She nevertheless insisted their participation was “constructive.” She didn’t need to embarrass the nine; they had done that on their own. She did, however, restate that Democrats were not going to lose track of Biden’s “vision.”
Pelosi’s superpower throughout her two stretches as speaker has been her ability to mollify factions of her caucus, to figure out what they really need, to count her votes and to keep her eye on the goal. That is the reason for the most widely held rule of thumb inside the Beltway: Never bet against Pelosi.