Pelosi's silent treatment shows breaks with President Obama

For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), disagreement with President Obama often takes the form of silence.

While rank-and-file House Democrats have been outspoken in taking the White House to task over issues as diverse as foreclosure prevention, environmental protection and funding the federal government, Pelosi has stayed quiet or shifted her talking points to attacks on the GOP.

The intention is to stay united with the president, and not let Republicans or other groups take advantage of any divide between the White House and congressional Democrats.

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Pelosi’s tactics can be seen clearly in the decision by a broad coalition of California Democrats to urge Obama in writing last week to take bolder steps to prevent home foreclosures, which are endemic in much of the state.

“The administration has simply not done a darn thing to help my constituents,” Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza told reporters, summarizing the sentiments of many Democrats regarding the president’s housing policies.

Pelosi did not sign the letter — something a spokesman described as her custom on group letters to the administration. Instead, the minority leader is preparing a similar letter of her own, the spokesman said, although the contents of that message have yet to be released.


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Pelosi broke with Obama last week by voting against a free-trade agreement with Colombia, citing a history of violence against workers in the South American country. Still, the minority leader didn’t criticize the president for backing the deal. Instead, she went after GOP leaders for killing the administration’s efforts to install more worker protections.

“The administration was advocating for this [the worker protections] but … the leadership in this House said no,” Pelosi said on the chamber floor just before the vote.

Both episodes highlights the delicate political nature of the relationship between Obama — who’s facing a tough reelection next year — and Pelosi, who even when disagreeing with the president wants nothing more than to keep him in the White House an additional four years.

By trumpeting divisions between herself and the White House, Pelosi could lend ammunition to Republican leaders whose sights are set on keeping the House, taking the Senate and making Obama a one-term president.

The San Francisco liberal is hardly immune to the frustrations her troops have had with Obama, and she’s felt caucus pressures to take a stand when those frictions emerge. Occasionally, as with the Colombia trade deal, she’s voted against the president. 

But more often than not, Pelosi has kept her criticism to herself, or softened it in public.

A source familiar with Pelosi’s thinking said the minority leader is constantly in touch with the White House, but she’s doing it privately — out of the glare of the media.

“A private conversation or private letter to a high-ranking official carries a lot more weight than something that’s just going to be published in one of the Capitol Hill newspapers,” said the source, who would speak only anonymously due to the political sensitivity of the issue.

Many Democrats were up in arms last month when Obama scrapped plans to install tighter smog standards on the nation’s polluters — standards that were widely supported by environmentalists and liberal Democrats.

Pelosi — an avid environmentalist herself — declined to weigh in on the decision.

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This year’s bitter debates over government funding have also revealed divisions between Pelosi and Obama — divisions downplayed by the minority leader. Prior to an April vote on a 2011 continuing resolution, for instance, Pelosi took pains to distance herself from the proposal, saying she felt “no ownership” of the bipartisan deal endorsed by Obama. Hours before the vote, the minority leader declined to criticize the proposal outright, even suggesting that she’d support the bill if her vote were needed to pass it. 

“It is very important to keep government open,” she said at the time. “We all support that.”

In the more recent fight over legislation to raise the debt ceiling — another contentious agreement between Obama and GOP leaders — Pelosi reviled the proposal as a “satan sandwich with satan fries on the side.” Still, she ultimately backed the president by holding her nose and voting in favor of the bill.

Pelosi’s office on Tuesday continued to downplay any division between the minority leader and Obama, saying Pelosi is “fully committed” to supporting the White House, particularly when it comes to the president’s proposals to boost the economy and create jobs.

Pelosi is not alone among Democratic leaders downplaying any divisions with Obama. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for instance, recently attacked GOP presidential contender and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for saying the government should let home foreclosures “hit the bottom” to allow the housing market to recover organically.

Yet Reid — who represents the state hit hardest by the housing bust — hasn’t been critical of Obama’s efforts to stem the foreclosure crisis. 

Reid’s office did not respond to requests for comment this week.