Left’s pressure moves Pelosi toward clashes with Obama

When President Obama meets with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi next year, he may face a lot more resistance than he’s used to from his longtime ally.

The shift from Speaker to opposition leader will undoubtedly change Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) relationship with the White House, and may force her away from a president she has rarely abandoned in the past two years.

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As Obama decides whether and how much to compromise with the new Republican majority in the House, Pelosi is facing pressure from empowered liberals in her caucus to take a harder line with the administration.

 Those liberals, led by a group of four lawmakers who tried unsuccessfully to delay caucus leadership elections last week, say House Democrats were led astray by their allegiance to a flawed White House political strategy during the 111th Congress.

“We’re going to have to really push the White House and the Senate,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “I think the greatest failing in this Congress was that the House … enabled the White House, and the White House was not always right.

 “We’ve got to push them harder from our position,” he added, “to do what Democrats need and what’s expected by Democrats.”

 DeFazio and other House Democrats criticized Obama for spending too much time and political capital trying to negotiate with Senate Republicans on bills like the stimulus and healthcare reform. They say those talks resulted in watered-down legislation with weak public support. Complaints with the White House have festered for months on Capitol Hill, but they resurfaced in the aftermath of the Democrats’ devastating defeat in the midterm elections.

 And while Obama and the Senate took the brunt of criticism from liberals, Pelosi did not escape unscathed as she mounted a surprise bid to stay on as party leader.

“There are still over 400 bills sitting over there that we voted on,” a frequent White House critic, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), said in reference to the pile of House-passed legislation that stalled in the Senate. “And one would have to question why we voted on them, because I think we put our membership in jeopardy … by voting on bills that were never going to be taken up in the United States Senate.”

Lawmakers have been particularly incensed by the June 2009 House vote on cap-and-trade climate and energy legislation — Pelosi’s signature issue — that may have sealed the fate of several vulnerable Democrats. The bill never came up for a Senate vote.

 Under a reading of the election favored by many Democrats who backed Pelosi last week, the party was defeated in 2010 not by losing the middle, but by losing the left.

“The Republicans did not win this election. The Democrats lost it, because our base stayed home,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said.

Other tensions between the Obama and Pelosi teams have bubbled up since the election. A close Pelosi ally, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), suggested the White House did not do enough to defend the Speaker against the GOP’s campaign to vilify her across the country. And Pelosi broke with the White House by condemning as “simply unacceptable” draft proposals issued by the chairmen of the president’s fiscal commission. (A Pelosi spokesman clarified her statement with softer language a day later, signaling her initial reaction had gone too far.)

 In public, Obama and Pelosi have nothing but praise for each other, and aides to the Speaker insist they have “a very good relationship.” But Obama’s approach to the GOP House majority will determine the direction his partnership with Pelosi takes in the next two years. While his administration has vowed to fight efforts to repeal signature elements of his agenda, Obama has signaled a desire to work with Republicans on issues such as trade, education and reducing the deficit.

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 After Democrats lost control of the House and Senate in 1994, President Clinton famously tacked to the center with a strategy that became known as triangulation. Pelosi, however, “was not one that was supportive of Bill Clinton’s triangulation in the 1990s,” said Ronald Peters Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and the co-author of a study on Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker.

 “If [Obama] chooses to do that, that’s going to make it awkward for Pelosi,” Peters said.

The role of the minority party in the modern era has been to oppose the majority with “a sort of guerrilla warfare” aimed at denying legislative victories and framing stark contrasts for the next election, Peters said. It’s a strategy that Pelosi used with success earlier in the decade, as she led the Democratic fight against President George W. Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security. Republicans adopted it as well, opposing Obama’s domestic agenda en bloc and sweeping into the House majority.

 A president prone to compromising with Republicans complicates that strategy, Peters said. “It makes it very difficult to play oppositional politics if the president of your party is cutting deals,” he said.

 If Obama is negotiating with Republicans, it is unlikely Pelosi will be able to keep her caucus entirely on the sidelines, as both parties will want concrete achievements to bring home.

“That’s the key: Getting things done,” said former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader who battled Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) when Clinton was in the White House. Both Republican and Democratic leaders “have to find a way to move the ball down the field while keeping both sides’ core principles. That’s the task, and it’s not easy,” said Gephardt, who now heads his own D.C. lobbying firm.

 Gephardt praised Pelosi’s performance as Speaker but said she recognizes that the post of minority leader carries “a different set of requirements.”

 In the 1990s, he said, the push to broker bipartisan deals to balance the budget “meant compromise.”

Exactly how Pelosi will position herself remains to be seen. While she has made token gestures toward cooperation with the Republicans since the election, she has more vocally pledged to fight attempts to roll back her party’s accomplishments.

The choice to negotiate belongs equally to the Republicans, Gephardt said. “It takes two to tango. The Republicans have to be able to come to the middle,” he said.

 If they don’t, Pelosi may have the advantage, Peters said. “Her best hope is that Republicans overplay their hand,” he said, by pushing Tea Party-favored bills like a full repeal of healthcare rather than legislation that more directly targets job creation.