Pelosi’s lame-duck comeback

Pelosi’s lame-duck comeback
© Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDon't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms Hillicon Valley: Officials worry about Nevada caucus technology after Iowa | Pelosi joins pressure campaign on Huawei | Workers at Kickstarter vote to unionize | Bezos launches B climate initiative Pelosi joins pressure campaign on Huawei MORE (D-Calif.) heads into the next Congress newly empowered by her feisty opposition to a year-end spending package that outraged her caucus. 

Although the California Democrat was ultimately on the losing side of the debate over a $1.1 trillion government-funding measure, her decision to take on President Obama and side with a vast majority of House Democrats won across-the-board accolades from her troops at a time when many are grumbling about their party’s future.

The strategic move at once sent a message to her liberal-leaning caucus that she's willing to fight for core Democratic principles. It served as a warning to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that she has the power to sustain presidential vetoes, and a signal to the White House that she and the Democrats won't be a rubber stamp for Obama-backed bills if they think the party's values are being trampled.


“Pelosi, in fact, did a brilliant job on this,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchA disaster for diplomacy and the Zionist dream Sanders endorses 9 progressive House candidates Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements MORE (D-Vt.). “It was very wise of Pelosi to take this fight on in the full-throated way she did, because otherwise there would have been a sense among the Democrats that if we don't fight on this we won't fight on anything.”

Pelosi had struggled in the lame duck up to that point. Not only did the Democrats lose more than a dozen seats in the midterms, but Pelosi had alienated many in her caucus by siding with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close friend, over the more senior Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) for ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

The Democratic criticisms grew louder when Pelosi denied Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a Pallone supporter in the late stages of a pregnancy, an absentee vote in that contest. 

But by launching a vigorous attack on the GOP riders in the cromnibus bill – and taking on Obama very publicly in the debate – she silenced her critics, energized her base, and heads into the 114th Congress with renewed standing atop the party.

“I think Democrats come out of this somewhat optimistic that we're going to have a voice in future negotiations,” Welch said.


The Democrats' tone, in recent months, hasn't always been so sunny.

Pelosi ran unopposed in her successful bid to remain Democratic leader in the next Congress, but it wasn’t without controversy. The San Francisco liberal has led the party since 2003, and in the wake of November's mid-term elections – in which the Democrats were trounced, losing 13 seats and shifting a good-deal more power to Boehner – many in her caucus questioned if there's wasn’t a need for some fresh faces in leadership.

The griping grew more pronounced with the arrival of the Pallone-Eshoo vote, when Pelosi angered many Democrats by bucking the seniority system to promote her closest friend on Capitol Hill. Denying Duckworth a proxy vote for Pallone only intensified the criticism. And when Pelosi wouldn’t allow Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) a shot at the ranking membership spot on the Veterans Affairs Committee, a number of Democrats found her tactics underhanded. 

“That wasn't cool at all,” said one House Democrat.

But that was November. And with the arrival of December's spending debate, Pelosi found her footing by leading the charge against a pair of GOP riders granting new powers to big banks and wealthy campaign donors. Those amendments had both surprised and infuriated most in her caucus, and Pelosi wasted little time announcing her distaste for the package – and Obama's support for it.

“I'm enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with this,” she said in a rare rebuke of Obama on the House floor the day before the vote.

Pelosi's stand was hailed by Democrats on both sides of the Capitol. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said that even in defeat, Pelosi came out the winner by sending the strategic message that Democrats will hold sway in the next Congress.

“Pelosi handled it extremely well. She knew the government couldn't be shut down … but she also knew that she had to show that Democrats are needed. And so she provided a veto-proof, a veto-sustainable group to say no,” Schumer said on CNN'S “State of the Union” program. 

“Anyone who thinks that Democrats are going to be irrelevant in the upcoming Congress, if you look at the House and the Senate, in both cases, the Republican leaders needed Democrats to actually get the government moving.”

Welch agreed, saying Pelosi had exactly the right political instincts at exactly the right time.

“It was all happening in real time, and that's what was so impressive about Pelosi. She had to be reacting to the caucus as the caucus was reacting to the situation,” Welch said. “It wasn't like she could sit down and get a lot of advice and counsel. It had to come from her own internal sense of what was the right thing to do, what were her Democratic values and how to politically manage an extremely difficult challenge. 

“And I thought she did it very, very well.”