Nancy Pelosi Takes Savvy Stand, Backs Disliked Obama-Boehner Debt Deal

The ex-speaker was disgusted by the debt deal, but voted yes for the good of the country. By Eleanor Clift

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

Throughout the day Monday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi refused to say how she would vote on the debt deal that would come before the House in a matter of hours. “She’s making Boehner sweat,” said a Democratic operative. “She’ll deliver as many Democratic votes as she needs to, and not one more.”

From Pelosi’s perspective, the bill was a Republican victory that puts the burden on working people. She was not seen as an integral part of the negotiations once President Obama began dealing directly with Speaker John Boehner. Her role was to represent the left in its disgruntlement with what it sees as a sellout by President Barack Obama. Yet when the balloting finally got underway, the bill passed easily, 269 to 161, with 175 Republicans and exactly half the Democrats, 95 of them, voting yes, including Pelosi.

Weeks of angry partisanship melted away when Democrat Gabby Giffords entered the chamber to cast her first vote since being shot in the head seven months ago. Pelosi learned only that morning that Giffords might return, and her surprise appearance made an otherwise bitter pill for Democrats go down a bit easier as Giffords filled out her voter card and her “Y” for yes appeared on the tally board in the chamber.

Pelosi’s heart wasn’t in this bill, and she delegated much of the heavy lifting to Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, a veteran lawmaker who has a deeper well of trust with moderates who would provide the bulk of the votes. “She’s not deeply invested,” says Norman Ornstein, a Congress watcher with the American Enterprise Institute. “But she will not do anything to undermine it.”

In the end, a broad coalition of Democrats, including liberals, voted for the bill, reflecting the hold-your-nose pragmatism of their leader.

Pelosi’s coolness for the package endorsed by the White House is emblematic of the trouble Obama has with the left. The arguments are familiar: he concedes too much; he doesn’t fight for Democratic ideals; he takes the left for granted; he struck a deal that is more popular with independent voters and the bond market than progressives.

The White House dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Capitol Hill to help cajole restive Democrats. The gregarious Biden has better chemistry with Pelosi and, frankly, with most Democrats than Obama, whose cool intellectuality can be off-putting. It’s not a matter of dislike, but there is not much of a bond between Pelosi and Obama, the way there is with Harry Reid, who took Obama under his wing when he was in the Senate.

After Pelosi lost her speakership, she pretty much disappeared from public view, sparking speculation that the White House was dissing her. Obama took the message from the electorate that he had to change course, move more to the center. And that meant distancing himself from Pelosi and other congressional Democrats.

But it’s also a reflection of the minority party’s role in the House, says Ornstein. “Nancy, contrary to popular belief, is not an ego-driven ideologue. She understands how the process works and when you’re relevant and when you’re not.” Still, it must irk her to see Obama cozying up to her successor, John Boehner, holding secret talks at the White House, and doing guy things like making a show of playing golf with the speaker.

Still, her job as leader of the president’s party is to “salute and get in line and that’s what she’s done,” says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.

She hasn’t always followed the script. During the recent battle over a looming government shutdown, Pelosi was conspicuously out of town the Friday of the crucial vote, attending events in Boston. She told reporters, “I feel no ownership of that or any responsibility to it—except that we don’t want to shut down the government.”

As with the debt deal struck on Sunday, Pelosi thought the April budget bill went too far in cutting health, education, and nutrition programs. Relegated to the sidelines, she was powerless to stop it with the White House calling the shots. “Pelosi is savvy enough to know that in the House, you’re all or nothing. There’s not much for her to do other than plot her return to power,” Bennett says.

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To regain the majority, Democrats would have to pick up 24 seats in the November 2012 election, which is possible if there is a backlash against the Tea Party. If the Democrats rebound, Pelosi would be speaker for sure, says Bennett. Otherwise, it’s not clear how long she would want to stay if her party remains in the minority.

Pelosi pushed Obama during the health-care debate, and if it weren’t for her persistence, the deal would have collapsed. Back then, Obama hailed her as one of the best speakers ever; now he doesn’t call on her much anymore.

Pelosi is the embodiment of the wild ride America took and is still taking with Barack Obama. She was exuberant about his election, her elevation to the speakership, and their ability to do historic things together. For Pelosi, just as for many Americans, Obama personified the transformative change that seemed possible.

Her disillusionment surfaced during the health-care debate when she felt Obama was too passive in getting Senate Democrats to resolve their differences. She declined to either cajole or push her caucus to support the debt bill. She told Democrats to vote their conscience, in effect giving liberals a pass to oppose a bill that many see as an unconscionable assault on the programs Democrats hold dear.

Pelosi's statement on the House floor moments before the debt deal passed summed up the dutiful role she felt obliged to fulfill. "It’s hard to believe that we are putting our best foot forward with the legislation that comes before us today," she said. "I’m not happy with it, but I’m proud of some of the accomplishments contained in it. And that’s why I am voting for it. "

Behind the scenes, Pelosi successfully fought to protect Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid from any cuts, and stood her ground against Republican efforts to cut Pell grants for college students. A senior Democratic aide said she also beat back a last-ditch effort by Boehner to take revenues off the table in the next round of deficit talks. Pelosi is a skilled legislator, and while she didn’t get the headlines in this battle, she won important policy skirmishes, and no one left the room after negotiating with her thinking she’d be the first to make a concession.