In debt talks, McConnell and Pelosi send Obama a message: We're still relevant

Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, who were shut out of the fiscal 2011 budget negotiations, are making their views loud and clear on the debt-ceiling talks.

The minority leaders of the Senate and House differ starkly on what should and should not be in a final deal. But they are motivated by the same two goals — to shape negotiations according to their caucuses’ wishes and to win majorities in their chambers in the 2012 election.

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November 2010 tossed out Pelosi and made Speaker John Boehner of Ohio the most powerful Republican in Congress. Eight months later, McConnell and Pelosi want to show that they are, in the words of former President Bill Clinton after the 1994 Republican revolution, “still relevant.”

Their reduced roles were clear when they were excluded from the government shutdown showdown this spring. It was Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who hashed out that deal with President Obama. 

But with the votes of House Democrats and Senate Republicans needed to pass any debt deal, McConnell and Pelosi can assert themselves. For McConnell, this is more risky because of his tepid relationship with conservatives in the Senate. And Pelosi will have her influence within the Democratic Caucus tested in a very public way.

McConnell has pushed bipartisan entitlement reform since taking over as Republican leader in 2006. Achieving those long-sought reforms would be a legacy accomplishment.

Pelosi’s aides downplay April’s fight as a relatively small battle over a six-month stopgap spending measure. The debt-limit debate is a much grander stage for her because a long-term package could determine taxations and spending levels for the next decade.

McConnell particularly has walked a tightrope.

Sometimes he has been the GOP’s main spokesman, holding special solo news conferences, appearing on weekend TV and other media appearances, as he did Sunday. He has outspokenly rejected tax hikes and demanded tax reform and Medicare cuts.

At the same time, however, his staff insists he has not been at the negotiating table with the president, despite several meetings in the past two weeks with Obama, including a one-on-one session June 27.

“I can’t point to a single negotiating session he’s been in,” McConnell’s spokesman said late last week.

Why the dichotomy? Because McConnell has used the debt issue to raise his profile but has also carefully kept his distance. He knows conservatives, including his Kentucky colleague, GOP Sen. Rand Paul, will probably balk at the final deal.

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Led by McConnell’s rival, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), conservatives have pledged to reject an increase in the debt ceiling unless Congress first passes a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers.

McConnell dismisses this goal as unreachable, though he is a co-sponsor of the amendment along with every other Senate Republican.

“Conservatives are going to be disappointed with any compromise produced simply because they’re talking about the wrong things,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax advocacy group.

Conservative groups have pressed Republicans to promise to fight a debt-limit increase absent prior approval of deep spending cuts, enforceable spending caps and a balanced budget amendment.

“They’re talking simply about spending cuts and tax increases. We’re talking about budgetary reform. They’re still playing small ball,” Roth said of the talks between Obama and congressional leaders.

Pelosi has inserted herself into the talks by demanding a seat at the negotiating table if her caucus is expected to vote for a final deal.

But she risks disappointing liberals if she approves any deal that cuts entitlements, a compromise Obama is considering. Her caucus is increasingly frustrated with Obama.

“What we really need is a strong progressive caucus backing up Pelosi,” said Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, a liberal advocacy group.
Chamberlain praised Pelosi for standing up to GOP demands but he’s worried that many Democrats may follow Obama and accept entitlement cuts. 

“When it’s Nancy Pelosi versus the president, it’s a tough internal battle for Democrats. I hope they side with Pelosi because that’s what the American people want,” he said.

A senior aide says Pelosi has been in regular contact with the White House to insist that Democrats do not want to cut future benefits in exchange for two years’ more borrowing. Pelosi argues instead for trimming deficits with higher taxes on the wealthy, closing business tax loopholes and cutting defense.

So it was embarrassing for Pelosi when the White House blindsided her last week by agreeing to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.

After meeting Obama and other leaders Thursday, Pelosi emphatically said, “We do not support cuts in benefits for Social Security and Medicare.”

She added: “What I’ve said is, if there is a table that Social Security is on, it’s on its own table, and any savings should be plowed back into making Social Security stronger. And the same applies to Medicare as well.”

Labor unions and liberal groups count on Pelosi to resist cuts to entitlements that have been sacred to Democrats for decades.

“It’s clear there will be huge defections by House Republicans. In some ways the House Democrats have as much leverage as any player in this,” said Frank Clemente, campaign manager of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of groups including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, MoveOn.org, the NAACP and SEIU.

“The House Democrats have a pretty unified position against cutting Social Security so we’re counting on them quite a lot,” said Clemente.