Pelosi puts two issues aside to press forward on healthcare reform

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has put the lid on two of the more contentious issues that last week were threatening to divert critical attention away from healthcare’s home stretch.

At the beginning of last week, Pelosi was facing the return of a Caucus that was as fractured over the $15 billion jobs bill as it had been over any other issue before the House last year.

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And at the same time, a year’s worth of questions about the future of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) came to a head when the Ethics Committee admonished the New York Democrat for accepting corporate sponsored trips in 2007 and 2008, a violation of the House rules put in place by Pelosi.

Rangel’s immediate insistence that he would remain chairman of the Ways and Means Committee quickly put the spotlight on Pelosi herself. But in a matter of days – and before she endured too much damage by again sticking with her chairman – Rangel’s resolve yielded to the reality that he would have to relinquish his gavel.

That decision only resulted in yet another problem for Pelosi, though, when she faced a near-revolt from the Caucus over the possibility that she would allow Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to assume the chairmanship.

While the Rangel-Stark uproar dominated the headlines – and nearly overshadowed President Barack Obama’s mid-week speech, in which he implored Democrats to finish healthcare reform and blessed the use of reconciliation rules allowing the Senate to pass a package of healthcare amendments by a 51-vote majority – Pelosi also found herself needing to whip a Senate-passed jobs bill that was on the verge of collapse.

Yet by Thursday night, Pelosi had overseen the quick transition from Stark to Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), who many Democrats believe has enough of the Caucus’ confidence to remain in place as interim chairman until at least the completion of healthcare reform, and had locked down the votes of conservative Blue Dogs and quelled a second revolt from the Congressional Black Caucus over the jobs bill.

The warding off of those two issues will likely go a long way toward helping the Speaker focus on a more positive priority -- working on bringing the healthcare bill home.

And the timing couldn’t be more crucial. The White House has laid down an end-of-the-month marker for completing healthcare, and House Democrats are by all accounts short – by anywhere from a few to perhaps more than a dozen – of the votes needed to pass the Senate bill and a second package of “fixes” that the Senate and White House will agree to.

With so much work ahead of them, House leaders can ill-afford another week of distractions.

The horizon is not completely cloudless, however.

Pelosi could potentially be drawn into another ethics scandal over Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.). On Friday the freshman Democrat announced his intention to resign on Monday, acknowledging that a pending Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Massa made inappropriate comments to a male staffer “would tear my family and my staff apart.”

Massa’s resignation ends the inquiry, but Pelosi faced questions on Thursday about when she learned of the charges against one of her members. She responded that her staff never informed her.

That put her opposite Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who was told about the allegations and instructed his staff to give Massa or someone from his office 48 hours to report the incident to the Ethics Committee before the Majority Leader’s office did it for him.

On Thursday, Pelosi brushed off a question about why her staff chose to keep her in the dark.

“A one, two, three person removed rumor that had been reported to Mr. Hoyer's office that had been reported to my staff, which they didn't report to me, because, you know what? This is rumor city,” she said. “Every single day there are rumors. I have a job to do and not to be the receiver of rumors.”