Pelosi demands seat at debt talks

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will demand a seat in the table for the final talks on the national debt limit, putting a strong liberal voice in the room.

Pelosi and House Democrats were left out of the negotiations between President Obama and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last year that extended nearly all of the Bush tax rates though 2012.

Pelosi didn’t participate in the final high-level talks over fiscal 2011 spending levels either. 

But now she’s demanding her say at a time when many of her House Democratic colleagues are disappointed in Obama’s level of consultation with their caucus.

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“If they don’t have the votes, House Democrats have to be at the table,” said a House Democratic leadership aide.

Pelosi stayed out of the talks on crafting a continuing resolution funding the rest of 2011 that included $38.5 billion in spending cuts because House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) expressed confidence they would pass it without Democratic help.

But, in the end of that debate, the Republican votes fell short, and GOP leaders needed help from House Democrats. Democrats went along with a deal they had almost no part in negotiating because they wanted to avert a government shutdown.

The experience left a bitter taste in their mouths, and Pelosi won’t let it happen again.

Although she is the minority leader in a chamber that gives the minority party few powers, Pelosi believes she has leverage in the debt-limit debate.

“We know that they do not have 218 votes for any package that increases the debt limit,” said the Democratic leadership aide of House Republican leaders.

Flexing her muscle, Pelosi asked for and got a meeting with Obama on Thursday morning to discuss the next phase in the negotiations.

A last-minute defection of conservative Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers forced Boehner to rely on Democratic help in April. Pelosi believes it will be only tougher for him to round up his conference to support a compromise on the debt limit.

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Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader of the Senate Tea Party caucus, warned of this on Friday when he told ABC News that Republicans who voted for a debt-limit increase without massive spending cuts and a balanced budget amendment would lose reelection.

“Based on what I can see around the country … not only are those individuals gone, but I would suspect the Republican Party would be set back many years,” DeMint said.

“It would be the most toxic vote,” he said.

House Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated with Obama over what they see as his unwillingness to take a stand against Republicans on taxes and proposed cuts to Medicare. They also grumble that his infrequent outreach to their caucus is a sign of political naivety.

Their suspicions about a brewing debt-limit deal were raised last month when Vice President Biden said cuts to Medicare were on the table. Meanwhile, the GOP negotiators, Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) insisted tax increases were off the table.

Several House Democrats made their displeasure known when the caucus met with the president at the White House earlier this month. Lawmakers emerged from the meeting determined their party should not capitulate to Republicans on taxes and Medicare cuts.

House Democrats are skeptical over Obama’s willingness to take a hard-line in the end-stage talks, especially after how negotiations of the Bush tax rates played out last year.

They felt jammed by Obama and Republican leaders when forced in December to vote on a package extending major tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest families. Their anger over that deal has only intensified after Republicans have used the budget deficit as a justification to chop spending social programs across the board, including Medicare.

As with the package of spending cuts in April, Democrats were given a last-minute ultimatum: pass a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts and a one-year extension of unemployment benefits or take the blame for allowing tax rates, including those for the middle class, to rise.

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Pelosi is the strongest liberal voice in the Democratic leadership. She kept her position as Democratic leader in November after Democrats lost the House in a landslide by promising her caucus’s large liberal wing that she would fight for their priorities. The debt-limit talks are her chance to make good on that pledge.

Congressional leaders kept Pelosi out of the talks on the 2011 spending cuts and justified it by keeping McConnell on the sidelines as well.

McConnell still had input because he talks to Boehner at least twice a week and their staffs kept in close contact during the negotiations to avert a government shutdown.

Pelosi doesn’t have as tight a relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The debt-limit talks that were led by Biden came to an end last week when Cantor pulled out and said it was time for Obama to get involved. Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) represented House Democrats in those meetings.

Now the talks have moved to the very highest leadership levels with Obama planning to meet Reid and McConnell on Monday.

The president held a secret meeting with Boehner on Wednesday night.

Pelosi has made it clear that this time she intends be a part of that elite group as well.