Speaker Pelosi to shield vulnerable members from controversial votes

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has privately told her politically vulnerable Democratic members that they will not vote on controversial bills in 2010 unless the Senate acts first.

After a year of bruising legislative victories that some political analysts believe have done more to jeopardize her majority than to entrench it, Pelosi is shifting gears for the 2010 election.

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The Speaker recently assured her freshman lawmakers and other vulnerable members of her caucus that a vote on immigration reform is not looming despite a renewed push from the White House and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The House will not move on the issue until the upper chamber passes a bill, Pelosi told the members.

But according to Democrats who have spoken to Pelosi, the Speaker has expanded that promise beyond immigration, informing Democratic lawmakers that the Senate will have to move first on a host of controversial issues before she brings them to the House floor.

“The Speaker has told members in meetings that we’ve done our jobs,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “And that next year the Senate’s going to have to prove what it can accomplish before we go sticking our necks out any further.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the president of the freshman class, said that Pelosi came to last Wednesday’s freshman breakfast to deliver that message, and that it was met with wide spread approval.

“I think freshmen, particularly, are not enamored of the idea of being asked to walk the plank on a controversial item if the Senate is not going to take any action,” Connolly said.

Pelosi’s promise could dim the prospects for other White House priorities as well, including the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — known as “card check” — and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibition on gays serving openly in the military.

“There’s not going to be a ton of stuff legislatively next year either way,” a House leadership aide said. “But on EFCA — even though the House has demonstrated its ability to pass it — and on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Senate is definitely going to have to act first.”

The House passed EFCA during the last Congress, but members who voted on that bill were well-aware it had no chance to be signed into law by President George W. Bush.

After passing a series of expensive bills, including the $787 billion stimulus, Democrats are vowing to reduce the federal deficit next year.

There certainly will be difficult votes for Democrats next year, ranging from raising the debt limit to funding the troop surge in Afghanistan. Those types of “must-pass” bills are expected to clear both chambers of Congress.

Some liberals are concerned that there will be fewer Democrats after the 2010 elections and that the White House should ramp up, not slow down, its agenda. They have also made the case that President Barack Obama and congressional leaders must move left to ensure that the Democrats’ base will show up next November, and argument immigration reform proponents have been making  with increased intensity in recent weeks.

Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and administration officials recently agreed that, on the heels of the House taking the lead on a climate change bill that was declared dead on arrival in the Senate and a healthcare bill that’s taking on a more centrist form with each passing day, the Senate would have to pass an immigration reform bill before the House would vote on its own.

Key House Democrats have said that Pelosi needed to solicit that promise from Reid in order to quell an emerging two-front rebellion in her caucus — from Hispanic Democrats who had grown tired of hearing false promises, and from vulnerable Democrats tired of being forced to support contentious bills facing certain death in the Senate.

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On Tuesday, a working group of more than a dozen Democrats introduced an immigration reform bill that sponsor Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said would set the liberal marker for reform.

Minutes before that press conference started, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said that “the Speaker’s been very clear that the Senate would go first on an immigration bill.”

More than most leaders, Van Hollen has had to deal with the ugly side of the victories that Pelosi has won. In the absence of Senate action on a number of House initiatives, GOP reelection committee operatives have been hammering vulnerable Democrats for supporting “Pelosi’s ultra-liberal agenda.”

Van Hollen, in his second term heading the DCCC, played offense last cycle. This time around, he’s playing defense.

“There have been some members who have been concerned that the House is passing things ahead of the Senate,” Van Hollen said when discussing immigration. “And what we’re simply saying is that, in this case, the Senate will go first.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has taken the immigration reform lead for Senate Democrats, but has repeatedly delayed the release of his bill. And while reform proponents believe that passage of a Senate bill would all but guarantee an immigration reform law, many see the upper chamber as being unable to forge a consensus on an issue more divisive than healthcare.

Obama and Reid have vowed to pursue immigration reform in 2010.

While freshman Democrats said they were relieved to hear Pelosi’s promise, they have also sent some clear signals to House leaders.

Talking about the financial regulatory reform bill that moved through the House last week without any GOP support, Connolly referenced the flipping of 40 Democrats on a controversial amendment to give judges new power to rewrite home mortgages — known as “cramdown” — to showcase the approach vulnerable members have been taking on issues that the Senate has shown little appetite for.

“Most of us voted against the [Rep. John] Conyers [Jr. (D-Mich.)] amendment to reinstitute ‘cramdown.’ We may have supported — I did — cramdown earlier this year, but the Senate said, ‘No, we're not going to do it,’” Connolly said. "The freshmen pretty much said, ‘Why have a Pyrrhic victory on this issue only to have the Senate shoot us down yet again?’”