Pelosi makes case she can strike deal

Seeking a larger role at the negotiating table, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has publicly expressed optimism on how she and other congressional leaders can strike a deal on taxes and spending. 

Pelosi, regarded as one of the most partisan Democrats in Congress, has adopted a more pragmatic tone since the election. 

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After a meeting of congressional leaders at the White House, Pelosi stressed the need for a bipartisan agreement before Christmas, adding, “We understand our responsibility there. We understand that it has to be about cuts, it has to be about revenue, it has to be about growth.”

Pelosi knows the art of making a deal, having ironed out agreements with the Democratic-led Senate and the White House on the stimulus and healthcare reform during the last Congress. She also agreed to occasional deals with former President George W. Bush in 2007 and 2008.

Negotiating fair agreements requires a certain amount of political jockeying. And the California Democrat is marking her turf by defending entitlement benefits — and attacking the tax breaks for the wealthy — that represent the highest hurdles to a bipartisan agreement.

Pelosi this month has insisted on hiking tax rates on the wealthy; she’s urged a clean vote on extending the Bush-era tax benefits for the middle class; and she’s come out in outright opposition to “structural” reforms to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security if those changes include benefit cuts.

“Is that a euphemism for ‘I am going to cut your benefit if you are a middle-aged senior’ — is that what structural change means?” she said earlier this month. “No, I don’t support that.”

To be sure, Pelosi has been careful to moderate her rhetoric at the launch of the so-called “fiscal cliff” talks. Unlike some Democratic leaders, for instance, she’s not insisting that the wealthy tax rates return as high as Clinton-era levels. 

She’s also broken with other Democrats, notably Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.), in showing little willingness to carry the fiscal-cliff debate into January without securing a deal.

“I want you to be disabused of any notion that there’s any widespread thought that it would be a good thing for our country for us to go over the cliff,” she said two weeks ago. “We want an agreement.”

But Pelosi is also the liberal standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, and House Democrats — who have long called for her to have more influence over the budget battles of the 112th Congress — say they’re confident she’ll use her position as top negotiator to fight for the entitlement programs and other federal benefits Democrats have long championed. If she’s softened her rhetoric since the elections, they say, it’s with that goal in mind.

“What you’re seeing is the pragmatic streak that has figured out how to run crisply with the streak that has the values that really have propelled Nancy Pelosi for the longest time,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday. “What she’s doing is always basing herself on those values, sort of embedded with the middle class, but saying, ‘But we’re going to do something. We’ve got to be pragmatic.’ 

“She’s a indispensable voice in any balanced approach that emerges from these leadership conversations,” Becerra added. “So I don’t think she’s any different than she’s always been.”

The dynamics of the 112th Congress have been unusual because House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — despite leading a significant majority — has frequently struggled to rally enough support from his GOP troops to pass even the most fundamental spending and budget bills. Instead, Republican leaders have relied on Pelosi to make up the difference to provide money for roads, disaster assistance to states and funding to keep the government running.

Pelosi’s leverage, however, has not always translated into a seat at the negotiating table. Indeed, during the biggest budget battles of the past two years, President Obama sometimes negotiated alone with GOP leaders, then shopped the results to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Bob Woodward’s latest book, The Price of Politics, notes that both Pelosi and Reid “were increasingly upset about being cut out of the negotiations” surrounding the fierce debt-ceiling fight of last year. And Pelosi, Woodward reported in the same volume, didn’t mince words in telling then-White House Budget Director Jack Lew as much.

“Next time around, you better make sure that you — we — use the leverage [of House Democratic votes],” Pelosi said, according to Woodward. “If you’re going to ask for House Democrats to put the vote over the top, we want to make sure that our concerns are more fairly reflected.”

With Pelosi now having a seat at the table, the coming lame-duck talks might highlight her dual role as a liberal champion and a dealmaker who’s helped to secure the passage of the bills that the GOP could not get over the top on its own. 

Still, it remains to be seen if Pelosi will be in the room when the final deal is struck.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the vice chairman of the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee, said Pelosi is exactly where she should be.

“The reality is she has to be at the table because Boehner cannot do this by himself. Pelosi is the one who will get the sufficient votes to get it done,” Cuellar said Tuesday. “She’s still feisty, she’s still very goal-oriented, she’s very inclusive — you know, she can see Blue Dogs like myself — and she is very set on making sure we reach an agreement. 

“She does not want to go over the cliff. I emphasize that,” he added. “She wants to reach an agreement in a bipartisan way.”

Julian E. Zelizer, congressional historian at Princeton University, said Pelosi’s softer messaging this month is likely just posturing from a Democratic leader who thinks her party has the upper hand heading into the high-stakes lame-duck talks — and doesn’t want to lose it. 

“As a shrewd politician, she doesn’t want to close the door on negotiations before they even start,” Zelizer said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Yet Pelosi, even more than Obama, represents the liberal wing of the party, Zelizer added, and having her directly involved will both pull the negotiations to the left and invest Democrats in the final product much more than they’ve been invested in budget deals of the past.