A new era for Pelosi, with smaller office and shrunken troops

Her office is smaller; her troops have shrunk; and she’ll no longer have the run of the House.

Yet as Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepares for a diminished role as minority leader in the 112th Congress, the California Democrat is dismissing sentimental questions about what’s being discarded to focus instead on the fights ahead.

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“I don’t really look back,” she told reporters Tuesday, “I look forward.”

The response is typical Pelosi, the daughter of a Baltimore mayor who grew up breathing politics to become the first female Speaker in the nation’s history.

Despite landslide losses at the polls in November, Democrats voted overwhelmingly to keep Pelosi as their leader — an immediate indication that most had no intention of apologizing for their policies or backing down from a fight. 

The move is already paying dividends for liberals, who have seen Pelosi lead her party in aggressively attacking the GOP’s plan to repeal healthcare reform. Democrats have been combative and unrelenting in arguing that a repeal of the healthcare bill would hurt the middle class while widening the deficit.

Yet the move to keep Pelosi was also a gamble. For all of her success in passing contentious legislation through the House in recent years — everything from health reform to cap-and-trade legislation to a Wall Street overhaul — those achievements also made her a lightning rod for criticism, particularly among conservatives wary of government expansion. In November, she led her majority to minority status, losing more than 60 seats in a record-setting election loss. 

Pelosi’s return as minority leader has stirred resentment from centrist Democrats, who were looking for a fresh, less-polarizing face to defend the party. Forty-three Democrats voted against Pelosi in a closed-ballot leadership contest against Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) following the party’s November trouncing at the polls.

Although the elections have produced a more liberal, Pelosi-friendly Democratic Caucus, political experts say lingering resentment among centrists could make it tougher for Pelosi to perform one of her central functions as minority leader: rallying Democrats against Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the incoming GOP majority.

“They’re probably not happy she’s still in charge, and some of them are going to feel pressure to join Republicans to save themselves,” said Julian Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University. “It’s going to be a pretty big fight, and she’ll have to pull out all her tools to keep those Democrats in line.”

It’s just one of the many transitions facing Pelosi as she becomes the first Speaker to step into the minority leader position since Joseph Martin, a Massachusetts Republican, in 1955. The gavel will pass from Pelosi to Boehner on Wednesday afternoon.

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at George Washington University, said Pelosi’s primary role as minority leader will be to return the Democrats to the majority in 2012 — no simple task, considering the extent of November’s losses and the enduring employment crisis.

“It is her job to define that Democratic alternative — at least politically, given that they won’t really have the chance to participate in what [legislative] decisions are made,” Binder said. “Her brand name is somewhat diminished, but her job really is to protect that Democratic party label, to make it a viable alternative come 2012.”

Another task for Pelosi as minority leader: Becoming a thorn in the GOP’s side by “making the Democrats the ‘Party of No’ in the House” — just as Republicans opposed almost every significant proposal of the Democrats, Zelizer said.

“Most people just see who’s in charge in Congress, and if you can’t get something done, it’s the fault of the person in charge,” Zelizer said of the blanket-opposition tactic. “That’s the benefit of being in the minority — you can do all kinds of things, not just voting no, but procedural tricks, and most of the public doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Yet another change for Pelosi: She’ll now be voting on the floor like the rest of her colleagues — something she frequently opted against as Speaker. For instance, she didn’t vote on last month’s White House-GOP tax package. 

Pelosi has been minority leader before, but that was on the way up. This time, it’s on the way down, which will likely exacerbate the existing frustrations of being relatively powerless, observers said. It’s not only an issue of being forced into a smaller office; Pelosi as Speaker was able to use her power as something of a counterweight “to keep Obama from giving away the store,” Binder said. 

“She wants to keep up the pressure, but without control of the House, it’s really hard to see how she pulls that off,” she added.

Still, experts are quick to note that Pelosi’s feistiness and political savvy will go a long way in the 112th Congress — regardless of her diminished role.

“She’s such a politician, there’s such a Lyndon Johnson in her, that she’ll be OK as a minority leader,” Zelizer said. “She’ll find what she needs to keep going even if she’s lost some of the clout she had.”

Pelosi vows to work closely with Republicans on efforts to create jobs and rein in deficit spending. Her message this week was both clear and consistent: The past is the past; she’s holding no grudges.

“I wish them success,” Pelosi said of the new GOP majority. “I look forward to working with them. But that’s the key: We look forward.”