Exasperated House liberals back Pelosi, point finger at President Obama

Frustrated liberals are standing behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), even though she has not attempted to torpedo bills that they strongly opposed.

Dozens of House Republicans have defected this year on high-profile bills on funding the government and raising the debt limit, ostensibly giving Pelosi and her liberal-leaning caucus leverage. 

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But that perceived sway has proven largely meaningless, as Pelosi’s allegiance to the administration has left her in the awkward position of tacitly endorsing policies she dislikes. In short, as long as President Obama and GOP leaders are forging bipartisan deals, the leverage of House Democrats will go only as far as their willingness to buck their own president — something they’ve so far been disinclined to do.

Indeed, amid the year’s most contentious and partisan budget battles, House Democratic leaders have prioritized the appearance of party unity over the policy concerns of their caucus.

Liberal Democrats, for instance, objected to the nearly $40 billion in spending cuts included in the 2011 continuing resolution (CR) enacted in April. More recently, they howled in opposition to the debt-limit package bursting with domestic spending cuts but entirely absent any tax-revenue increases.

Although Pelosi voted against the CR, she did so quietly, without announcing her intentions beforehand or whipping fellow Democrats to join her in opposition. She even suggested she would vote yes if her support were needed to pass the bill. 


Pelosi supported the debt-limit bill while conceding it was a raw deal for Democrats. Although most observers predicted House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would need Democratic votes to pass the proposal, Pelosi afterward said she thought the Republicans could secure the votes on their own.

“I’m unhappy about the fact that this was developed with a premise that the Republicans would have the 218 [votes needed to pass the debt-ceiling bill],” she told reporters last week, according to Talking Points Memo. “Since they didn’t, we should’ve had more influence.”

Half of the House Democratic Caucus rejected the final deal, while 73 percent of House Republicans voted for it. 

The bipartisan deals on the CR and the debt have complicated Pelosi’s effort to win back the House because it is difficult to criticize Republicans for backing deals that Obama signed into law. Moreover, the presidential race will be center stage next year, and House Democrats have grumbled that Obama’s actions in 2011 clearly illustrate that winning back the House is not among his top priorities. 

A growing number of liberal Democrats and policy groups say the White House has left Pelosi little choice through the budget debates. They’re blaming Obama’s deal-making style for undermining most of the leverage held by Pelosi and other House Democrats.


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“Of all the Democratic leaders in the room, it’s a pretty safe bet that Nancy Pelosi is doing the most to exert leverage on behalf of progressive priorities,” Adam Green, head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an email. “That’s a bit tough to do, though, when the Democratic president has no idea how to fight or exert leverage, and is giving away the store.”

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the administration dropped the ball in December when it agreed to extend the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans — a priority of GOP leaders — without getting more in return, such as a debt-ceiling hike. 

“We lost the debt-ceiling battle in December,” said Welch, who spearheaded the Democratic effort to pass a clean debt-ceiling bill. “It set a pattern of negotiations where [Republicans] really dug in and refused to compromise, and we started negotiating with ourselves.”

Welch said the entrenched partisanship — epitomized by the Tea Party — has put Democratic leaders such as Pelosi in a pickle between representing their caucus and helping Obama succeed in the lead-up to a tough reelection fight next year.

“There’s a recognition that the person driving our bus is the president,” Welch said. “He’s in charge here.” 

Pelosi has been quick to publicly defend Obama, blaming Republicans for their willingness to gamble the nation’s creditworthiness for the sake of maximizing federal spending cuts. In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to House Democrats on Tuesday, Pelosi congratulated her troops for “once again coming to the aid of our country by providing the votes to prevent default.” 

“The prolonged process demanded by the Republicans took us to the brink and cast a dark shadow on the governmental process,” she wrote. “I am writing to thank you and all House Democrats for your responsible approach to the fiscal challenge.” 

It’s not that Pelosi didn’t win some key victories for liberal Democrats through the debate. During a high-stakes meeting with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) two days before the House vote, Pelosi indicated that House Democrats would kill any package that included cuts to Social Security benefits — the so-called chained CPI — according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the discussion. 

A day later, in a similar meeting with Boehner, she also pushed back against GOP efforts to preclude the so-called “supercommittee” from tapping new revenues in its efforts to reduce deficits. 

Julian E. Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University, said Obama’s negotiation style “puts House Democrats in a corner.” 

“They do have leverage, but the minority party can’t use leverage when the president is not working with them,” Zelizer said. “While Obama differed in terms of the scale and scope of the package, he is on board with the overall agenda. This puts House Democrats in a corner. Nor are they fully confident that if they go out on a limb the president will support them.” 

Michael Mezey, political scientist at DePaul University, also put most of the blame on the White House. 

“Presidential scholars often argue that once a president shows that he can be rolled, he always will be rolled,” Mezey said in an email. “Obama’s genuine (and some would say naive) desire for a post-partisan presidency was interpreted by his opponents as meaning that he could be taken.”