Pelosi, Dems chart their own path for 2016

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats are poised to launch their own messaging strategy ahead of the 2016 elections.

The House minority leader says a strong Democratic presidential contender like Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAsian, Pacific Islander lawmakers to endorse Clinton Feds fight to prevent Clinton deposition in email case Trump decides he won't debate Bernie Sanders MORE will help the party bite away at the Republicans' substantial House majority at the polls next year.

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But making significant inroads, Pelosi says, will require much more than simply riding a nominee's coattails. House Democrats will also need to plot a course of their own.

“This isn't a pendulum that just swings back and forth. When we won in '06 we had plotted this for awhile [with] solidarity, unity of message and … the timing for how we rolled it out,” Pelosi told The Hill in a sit-down interview earlier this year. “It was all plotted and planned very scientifically, and members trusted us and stuck together with that unity. 

“We are on that path again, even though it's a presidential year,” she added, “so it gives us even more opportunity.”

Pelosi’s successful “Six for '06” campaign a decade ago propelled the party into control of the lower chamber for the first time in a dozen years, and made Pelosi the first and only female Speaker in the nation's history.

Pelosi is hoping to develop a similar strategy for 2016, and she’s already launched several messaging committees this year for that sole purpose.

It's not the only issue on which Pelosi is showing autonomy since last November's elections.

The California liberal is perhaps President Obama's strongest ally on Capitol Hill — at least publicly — but she’s shown no misgivings about breaking with the White House to support her left-leaning caucus in recent months. 

That shift was on full display in December when Pelosi bucked the administration during the high-stakes fight over government spending, and again last month when she rallied Democrats against a three-week extension of Homeland Security Department funding — an extension the president was prepared to sign.

Pelosi has emphasized that her role as minority leader is to sustain vetoes in confronting the largest GOP majority since the Hoover administration.

“Our leverage in the discussion springs from the fact that we have a Democrat in the White House ... and our upholding his veto strengthens the hand of the minority,” she said at the launch of the new Congress.

But with Obama facing no reelections — and with the president playing a much lesser role in the 2016 contests — her focus is now on maximizing Democratic pickups next year.

Those dynamics could be hugely influential in several key debates early this year. Looking ahead, Pelosi's liberal caucus has voiced strong objections to a pair of pending White House priorities — an updated use-of-force resolution in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and a series of international trade deals — which could compel the minority leader to reject both.

“I hope to see a path to ‘yes,’ ” Pelosi said of the administration's trade negotiations. “But the burden is on them to demonstrate that this is good for American paychecks.”

Julian Zelizer, a congressional expert at Princeton University, said Pelosi's actions come as little surprise, as it remains unclear how far the Democratic nominee's coattails will extend — “especially with Jeb Bush in the race,” he noted — and the tension between the White House and congressional Democrats has been simmering for years. Those dynamics — combined with Democratic concerns that a Clinton White House would offer little improvement in its congressional outreach efforts — lend good reason for Pelosi to take a stand, he said. 

“The tension between Obama and the Democrats has been so significant in recent years,” Zelizer said Friday by phone. “She's been relatively supportive publicly, but it's been clear that, privately, she's been incredibly frustrated with the president.”

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Friday that the minority leader's strategy is simple: work with Republicans when possible, but fight for Democratic priorities when necessary.

“We want to work in a bipartisan way, as we did to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security, but part of working together is to make clear where we have bipartisan, common ground and where we do not,” Hammill said.

Pelosi hasn't always been so willing to adopt the go-it-alone approach. In 2013, for instance, when Obama proposed to reduce Social Security payments as part of a deficit reduction strategy, liberals howled about the negative impact on seniors. Pelosi, however, approached much more cautiously, voicing concerns but ultimately declining to condemn the proposal outright — a move that provided cover for the president amid a tough budget fight with Republicans.

“It's a compromise measure,” Pelosi said at the time. “As with all compromise measures, there are some things in there that everybody doesn't love.”

Roughly two years later, Obama is in the twilight of his presidency, and Pelosi — while still among his fiercest defenders — is also more willing to stake her own ground.

December's debate over a $1.1 trillion government-funding package — dubbed the cromnibus — offered a glaring example. Liberal Democrats were up in arms over two last minute Republican amendments. The first scaled back parts of the Democrats' 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law; the second allowed wealthy donors to give a great deal more money to political parties.

Despite the Democratic opposition, the White House endorsed the package just moments after Democrats had united against the rule underlying the bill. Pelosi, in response, took to the House floor and launched a rare rebuke of the president.

“I'm enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with this,” Pelosi said. “And that would be the only reason they would sign such a bill that would weaken 'a critical component of financial system reform aimed at reducing taxpayer risk.' Those are the words in the administration's statement.”

Pelosi was ultimately on the losing side of that struggle — and by declining to whip formally against the measure she, in fact, offered tacit endorsement. But her willingness to buck the president so openly won broad praise from Democrats at a time, post-election, when many lawmakers were grumbling about the need for new leadership atop the party. 

A Democratic leadership aide downplayed the divisions, emphasizing that the cromnibus speech was rooted in a disagreement with the White House over tactics, not policy. Pelosi and the Democrats had wanted the administration to hold their official endorsement of the package for a few more hours, in hopes that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would crack on the two controversial amendments.

“It was [a message of], 'Give us more time,’” the aide said Friday.

The aide emphasized that Democrats and Obama are united on all the looming fights over tax reform, government spending and the various fiscal cliffs Congress must address.

“On all the big issues we're facing, we're on the same page,” the aide said.