Back in Power

Nancy Pelosi Decides to Stay as Democratic Leader, Maps Out Women’s Future

Eleanor Clift on the challenges Nancy Pelosi faces as she enters her next term.

Ending the speculation about her future, at least for now, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi informed her caucus on Wednesday that she would run again to be their leader. Then she held a press conference to tell the world—purposefully surrounded by dozens of women lawmakers whose presence on Capitol Hill she had helped engineer over the years through the force of her personality and her fundraising prowess.

“Understand that you are looking into the future,” she said proudly, crediting millions of women’s votes for a Democratic caucus that for the first time has a majority of women and minorities. “And we’re very proud of that,” she said. Stumbling for a moment in saying the Democrats had the gavel—the prerogative of the majority—she quickly recovered by saying “we don’t have the majority, but we have unity.”

After the press conference, New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney exulted, “we are on cloud nine”—noting that while Democrats failed to win the House, they beat expectations in picking up some eight seats. Women now hold 18 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate, which is still far short of Pelosi’s goal of parity—and incentive for her to continue as an important symbol of power for women. Staying as leader “was totally her decision to make. She has the support of the caucus,” said Maloney, adding that Pelosi raised more than $80 million for the Democrats.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that Pelosi would not willingly walk away from power. “Would Tip O’Neill have given up the speakership?” asks a former Hill aide. “Nobody gives up power they worked so hard to get.” This aide notes that as leader Pelosi gets prime office space in the Capitol plus additional staff. Stepping aside would mean giving up the leader’s office and laying off staff that have been loyal to her.

If this is indeed her last hurrah, as many Democrats were predicting yesterday, Pelosi gave no hint of when she might step down. And why would she consign herself to lame-duck status, even if two years from now that might be her intention? “Nothing she said obviates the possibility that this is her last hurrah, ” emailed a Democratic strategist, adding “Steny [Hoyer] as Prince Charles.”

Much of official Washington greeted Pelosi’s announcement as evidence that she is determined at all costs to prevent her long-time rival, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, from succeeding her. At the same time, the symbolism of her position so vividly on display at the Wednesday press conference underscored how her tenure as leader is about much more than a petty rivalry.

She recalled that when she came to Congress more than two decades ago, there were 23 women in the House out of 435 members, 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Empowering women has been a constant theme in Pelosi’s political life and career, and it has paid off. Stephanie Schrock, president of Emily’s List, a group that supports pro-choice women for elective office, said she is “thrilled” Pelosi is remaining as leader and will “continue to be a partner for us to recruit the next class of women to run for the House.”

Emily’s List started around the time Pelosi was first elected to Congress, when the small number of women in the House was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The next Congress will have 58 Democratic women but only some 20 Republican women, an advantage that reflects Pelosi's leadership as well as the work of Emily's List.

The qualms about Pelosi’s leadership center around whether she will be able to get the Democrats to make the necessary compromises on spending cuts and entitlements as President Obama negotiates with Republicans. Liberals in the caucus look to Pelosi to hold the line on entitlement programs. Brookings scholar William Galston sees Pelosi “positioning herself as the protagonist in a factional fight in the Democratic Party … to insure her direction remains firmly in control.”

Labor leaders and liberal interest groups have been meeting at the White House this week laying down their markers, and after winning the White House and adding seats in the Senate, compromise is not in the air. “Forces within the Democratic Party are clearly mobilizing to prevent President Obama from returning to anything resembling the 2011 negotiations,” says Galston. “Where she will come down on that, I don’t know.”

Without Pelosi and her leadership in the health-care fight, there would be no health-care bill. Liberals trust her and if she does sign on to a compromise, the odds are that she can deliver the votes. An aide points out that Speaker Boehner cannot pass legislation with Republicans alone, and that Pelosi has to be part of any budget compromise. “She will be at the table with the president,” says Maloney. “She’s been a trailblazer for the nation, for the party, and for women, and she will continue blazing trails.”