Pelosi distances Dems from Occupy protesters, compares to Tea Party

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday sought to distance Democrats from the left-leaning Occupy movement that’s swept the nation in recent months.

Pelosi argued that the movement is largely nonpartisan, unlike the conservative Tea Party camp, which she characterized as an extension of the GOP.

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“As opposed to the Tea Party, which was practically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, we don’t really have much of a connection with the Occupy [protesters],” Pelosi said during a public interview with Politico in Washington. “In fact, they probably have some sentiments that overlap between the two [groups].”

The comments are something of a departure from the Democrats’ message last year, when a number of liberal party members, including Reps. John Larson (Conn.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (Minn.), went out of their way to embrace the Occupy movement in the face of GOP criticisms.

The Occupy movement has had a spat of negative publicity lately. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray expressed concern about the growing number of rats at one of the movement’s locations in the nation’s capital and formally asked the National Park Service to move the protesters.

Another protester at a Washington camp was charged with child cruelty after a baby girl was found alone, crying in a tent. The child was unharmed.

Launched in New York City largely to protest Wall Street’s influence on public policy, the Occupy movement has presented something of a pickle for Democratic leaders, including President Obama. On the one hand, they support many of the changes advocated by a bulk of the protesters, including the effort to reduce the sway of corporations over Congress. On the other, they don’t want to become too closely associated with some of the more fringe elements of the diverse movement — which are being highlighted by Republicans — particularly during a high-stakes election year when every seat will count if the Democrats hope to keep the Senate and win back the House.

The Occupy debate is reminiscent of that surrounding the conservative Tea Party movement, which emerged following the 2008 election in response to a sinking economy and the resulting spike in deficit spending. As with the Tea Party discussion, the Occupy debate has taken on a partisan edge, with Republicans lobbing charges that the protesters are inherently lazy and un-American, and Democrats countering that GOP leaders are out of touch with the middle class.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for instance, has called the Occupiers “a mob,” while GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney characterized them as “dangerous” purveyors of “class warfare.”

Many Democrats have been quick to respond.

“The silent masses aren’t so silent anymore,” Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said late last year at the height of the debate. “They are fighting to give voice to the struggles that everyday Americans are going through.”

On Tuesday, Occupy Congress — a branch of the Occupy movement — turned its sights on the government, staging a protest in front of the Capitol, just a few blocks from the Newseum, where Pelosi was speaking. 

Pelosi was quick to throw her support behind the rights of the protesters to petition the government, voicing strong support for their argument that “the status quo is not acceptable.”

Still, she suggested the Occupiers would be more effective if they coalesced around a common message. She even offered a recommendation. 

“If I were they, I would have wedded this directly to the role of money in politics,” she said.

Discontent with Congress is hardly limited to the Occupy protesters. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 84 percent of voters disapprove of the job lawmakers are doing — a figure that should come as no surprise to congressional leaders, said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“I am a very strong member of the 84 percent,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “The American public are right to be distressed, disappointed, anxious, angry about the failure of the Congress to address the serious problems confronting our country.

“I want to talk to the 16 percent to find out what they’re thinking.”

Pelosi said much of the public’s cynicism regarding Washington can be traced back to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums — anonymously — in candidate elections. 

“What the court did was something so drastic,” she said, “it rolled back progress for 100 years.”

Pelosi said Democrats will push this year for greater disclosure of campaign donations, and promoted the idea of amending the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United decision.

The Democrats are hoping to parlay that populist message into election victories in November, with Pelosi predicting Tuesday that the party will win back the House.

Democrats would need to take 25 seats from Republicans in November to take control of the lower chamber after two years in the minority, but Pelosi said party leaders are eyeing a 10-seat cushion. Expected gains in a handful of key states — including California, Illinois, Texas, New York and Florida — make that goal attainable, the former Speaker argued.

“In those five states, we come very close to picking up most of what we need — the 25,” she said. “We need more than that, but come very close to what we need, the drive for 25 that takes us to 218. 

“I want 35, so we need more to get that done.”

This story was posted at 1:31 p.m. and updated at 7:41 p.m.