Pelosi leads rhetorical charge in fight against House Republican platform

Although a radioactive figure in parts of the country, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t hiding in the shadows in her new role as minority leader.

She’s leading the rhetorical charge in the House as Congress prepares for a showdown over a Republican proposal to cut billions of dollars in federal spending this year.

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“We are in the sixth week of the new Republican majority, and we have yet to see congressional Republicans address the country’s No. 1 priority,” she said at a press conference Friday — one of two media events she headlined in the 48 hours prior to the House vote on the spending bill. “The GOP is not just ignoring jobs, they are cutting them.”

The California Democrat has, in recent months, been blamed for the Democrats’ trouncing at the polls in November; labeled the face of big-government liberalism; and even forced to overcome a leadership challenge from centrists in her party. 

But congressional experts of all political stripes say her prominence in the budget debate comes as no surprise.

“Pelosi is not a Democrat who believes in backing down,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of political science at Princeton University. “There was little reason to think she would move behind the scenes, particularly after she fought to remain as the minority leader.”

There’s a feeling among Democrats, Zelizer added, “that it is more important to have a strong and effective leader — one who stands for something — than to rely on watered-down messages from second-string players. In the end, the latter won’t do much to help when Republicans attack.”

Gary Jacobson, congressional expert at the University of California-San Diego, agreed. 

“If the Democrats have any chance of making a comeback,” he said, “they’ve got to keep the pressure on.” No one in the caucus does that better than Pelosi, he added.

Republicans have pounced, seeing a certain advantage in Pelosi retaining her leadership role. 

“Making former Speaker Pelosi the public face of their House caucus just shows how out-of-touch the Democrats who run Washington remain,” a GOP leadership aide said Tuesday in an e-mail. “She was the leader and symbol of their arrogant backroom deals that ignored the will of the American people.” 

In four years as Speaker, Pelosi was known as a meticulous vote-counter and floor manager — one who was able to pass some of the most controversial proposals in recent memory, including climate change legislation and an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. Still, when the Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the lower chamber in the midterm elections, some in the caucus took issue with her leadership style. 

In November, Pelosi survived a leadership challenge from Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog Democrat who argued Pelosi was simply too liberal — and too polarizing — to continue leading the party. Pelosi won easily, but Shuler’s 43 votes were an early indication that a significant bloc of Democrats had grown wary of Pelosi’s leadership bona fides. 

Still, anyone who thought Pelosi would lay low this year has been proven wrong. Instead, Pelosi — a former appropriator — is at the front lines of the Democrats’ fight against a GOP plan to cut $61 billion in federal spending before October.

Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, noted that Pelosi’s job has been made easier by polls indicating that voters are wary of a number of individual cuts. With that in mind, Binder said, Pelosi is seizing the opportunity to counter the conservatives’ argument that federal spending is an impediment to economic recovery.

“She sees an opening there to push a left-of-center Democratic position,” Binder said.

David Mayhew, a Yale University expert on congressional behavior, said that for Pelosi to remain the face of the Democrats “probably isn’t a great thing” for the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Coalition. “But they can solve this difficulty,” he added, “by voting with the GOP and against Pelosi when various roll calls on spending come down.”

In some respects, Pelosi has adopted a slightly lower profile this year relative to last. For instance, her regular weekly press conferences — a staple for the Capitol press corps when she served as Speaker — have been abandoned in the 112th Congress.

By contrast, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) still hosts a weekly sit-down with reporters.

A Democratic leadership aide rejected the notion that Pelosi has emerged as the face of opposition to the Republicans’ spending cuts. The staffer noted that a number of Democrats — including Hoyer and Reps.  James Clyburn (S.C.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Robert Andrews (N.J.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) — have all staged press events to deliver the party’s message.

“There’s an effort to get everyone out there,” the aide said. 

Neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor the Republican National Committee responded to requests for comment Tuesday. 

Political experts were quick to note that the central focus of the 2012 elections will be on the presidential race, not anything the minority Democrats in the House have done. 

“The congressional elections in 2012 will be about Obama and the economy,” Michael Bailey, an elections expert at Georgetown University, said. “[T]here is no way that whether Pelosi speaks out directly affects the election of Democrats in moderate districts or anyone else.”