Pelosi faces one big final battle

Nancy Pelosi has been here before. 

More than a decade ago, in her first stint as Speaker, the California Democrat overcame enormous odds to shepherd the landmark ObamaCare bill through the House, securing health care for millions of uninsured Americans and cementing the most consequential domestic policy of the Obama era.

Now, in what could be the last legacy-making legislative act of a historic political career, all eyes are on Pelosi to see if she can deliver for her party once again, this time on a $3.5 trillion social spending and climate package — the top domestic priority of President Biden — which would transform the role of government in ways that would reverberate for generations.

The magnitude of the moment is not lost on Pelosi’s Democratic colleagues, who are growing anxious about the fate of Biden’s far-reaching agenda in the face of a stubborn impasse between moderates and liberals. That ongoing internal battle is coming to a head this week, when Pelosi says the House will vote on both a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has already passed the Senate, and a massive social benefits package, on which consensus appears a long way off. 

With everything on the line, Pelosi is pulling out all the stops, meeting in recent days with centrists, progressives, Senate leaders and Biden in an effort to bridge those lingering divisions. It’s a final, pivotal sprint to secure Biden’s domestic legacy — and add another chapter to her own. 

“She’s tireless. You can see how she is working this, working with everybody, responding to every inquiry, every phone call that we make to her,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a Pelosi loyalist. “I’ll quote her, ‘The times have found us,’ and these times have found Nancy Pelosi. So she is not going to rest until we get this one across the finish line.”

She has little room for error. With Democrats controlling the House by just a razor-thin majority, passing both the infrastructure and the larger social spending plan will require near unanimity from her diverse and restive caucus. 

The two bills are linked, since House progressives are vowing to oppose the first until the second is passed — a threat that’s highlighted the deep distrust between the party factions at the precise moment when a host of crucial bills are poised to hit the floor. The list of priority legislation includes not only Biden’s agenda items, but also legislation to prevent a federal shutdown, which is looming on Friday, and raise the debt ceiling to stave off a government default, which is set to happen as early as mid-October.

Pelosi has built a career honing an uncanny ability to rally her disparate caucus behind controversial bills. As Speaker in 2009, she pushed a huge climate bill through the House, despite resistance from dozens of centrists wary of bucking the energy industry. A year later, after months of debate, the San Francisco liberal marshaled Democrats behind the Affordable Care Act, sending to then-President Obama’s desk the most sweeping health care reforms in generations. 

But even some of her closest allies acknowledge that the current effort to realize Biden’s plans might be the toughest yet. To get the two bills to the president, Pelosi needs to resolve lingering disputes over a host of outstanding issues, including the size of corporate tax hikes, the scope of efforts to reduce drug costs for seniors, a contentious tax benefit for high-income families and an expansion of Medicare benefits.  

“If she can turn the members who are having cold feet about the [$3.5 trillion] amount, her legacy will not just be about the past, but it would be generational into the future,” Rep. Norma Torres, a fellow California Democrat, told The Hill. 

“We are facing a challenge that is unique in our caucus, but she is a master at this, of meeting people where they are, in showing them how we are meeting their need, so they can vote on this budget.”

While polls reveal that the specific policy provisions contained in Biden’s agenda tend to be popular, there are also risks in passing such drastic changes without any GOP support. Indeed, in the 2010 midterms, Democrats lost 63 seats — and Pelosi lost her Speaker’s gavel — in an election drubbing that was viewed at the time as a referendum on the passage of ObamaCare just months earlier. 

At 81, Pelosi remains a blur of motion, shuttling from one meeting to the next with members of her caucus or the president, activists or world leaders. On one recent day last week, Pelosi huddled in the Oval Office with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), then bounded back to the Capitol for a strategy session with White House communications director Kate Bedingfield.

In between, she unexpectedly crossed paths with Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) in a basement hallway and button-holed the moderate sophomore. Without relying on any notes, Pelosi quickly recalled the issue Phillips cared about: She promised him a vote on a targeted, small-business relief package he was seeking, explaining that while she didn’t have time to include it in an upcoming supplemental funding package, she’d find another vehicle for it very soon, a conversation overheard by a reporter.

Pelosi then instructed Phillips to help rally bipartisan support for the small-business package. It’s part of what’s made Pelosi so effective, as a Speaker and a vote counter — her ability to keep tabs of what specific issues or pet projects are motivating her members and doling out key posts, committee assignments and campaign cash. 

The free bagged lunches she gives Democrats each week help as well.   

“I am a master legislator,” Pelosi is fond of saying. 

Not all Democrats, of course, are Pelosi fans. After a disappointing showing at the polls in November, one moderate lawmaker attributed the lost seats to Pelosi’s “toxic” image, which GOP operatives have used for years to energize conservative voters. 

And since losing the gavel in 2011, Pelosi has faced several attempts to topple her from power. The most recent effort, after the 2018 cycle, was significant enough that she was forced to promise her critics she would remain Speaker no longer than four more years — a timeline that terminates at the end of this cycle. 

The pledge has all but eliminated the internal griping about Pelosi’s long tenure atop the party, where she’s been since 2003. And this week — with Biden’s agenda hanging in the balance and Democrats facing increasingly tough odds of keeping the House in 2023 — her strongest supporters are urging the warring factions of the party to bury their hatchets and pass Biden’s agenda. Some have some specific advice for how to do it. 

“I think the smartest members,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, “are the ones that heed what the Speaker says.”

“I keep telling the progressives, you got to look at who’s negotiating. Is there anybody better? Am I happy with the way she’s negotiating? Yeah,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the nine moderates who clashed with Pelosi over the timing of the infrastructure vote. “She knows when to push and when to pull back, when to push and when to pull back. There’s nobody else better than she is.”

Tags Anna Eshoo Barack Obama Charles Schumer Dean Phillips Joe Biden Kate Bedingfield Madeleine Dean Nancy Pelosi Norma Torres

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