When fiscal cliff legislation passed with mainly Democratic votes, Republicans griped, “Who’s the speaker?” It was humiliating for the GOP majority to play the handmaiden to minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Asked if the lopsided vote makes her the de facto speaker of the House, Pelosi demurred, coyly saying “not quite,” and reveling in her renewed clout. After the Democrats failed to regain control of the House in last year’s election, Pelosi appeared headed for a largely symbolic role as leader of the minority party in a chamber where the majority rules with an iron hand.
Republican infighting turned that assumption on its head with Pelosi suddenly looking stronger and more relevant than anybody anticipated, and not just because of Democratic votes that avoided the fiscal cliff. Unlike her counterpart on the Republican side, Pelosi is a leader with a firm lock on her caucus.
Her decision to stay on as leader after falling short in the 2012 election was all about what she wanted. No other Democrat would have dared to mount a challenge.
Pelosi is more Baltimore than San Francisco, taught by her five older brothers at an early age to sing “Hail to the Redskins,” though she professes love for her adopted city’s home team, too. “I always like to consider myself the toughest person in the room,” she says with obvious delight, adding, “I don’t go there to do that, but that’s what usually happens.”
Last Friday, after welcoming the new Congress the day before, she met with a small group of columnists, where she took her share of credit for protecting key programs from the budget knife in the fiscal cliff deal, outlined her goals for the 113th Congress, and shared some of the inside detail on the latest round of brinkmanship. She says President Obama “outdid me” when it came to standing firm against GOP demands, though she was mystified why he offered to include “chained CPI” (a new way of calculating cost of living benefits that most Democrats oppose) with the bumped-up $400,000 tax-cut cap. She wondered why he would take from the poor to give to the rich, but held her fire, not wanting to weaken the president’s hand.
She concluded it was more of a tactic to smoke out the Republicans than any real concession, and says she’s not worried about Obama being tough enough in the next round of fiscal warfare around raising the debt ceiling. “His whole demeanor changes when he talks about it,” she says. While she favors invoking the 14th Amendment and its safeguard of the public debt, Obama has not yet endorsed that path, leaving questions about how he might enforce his determination not to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling when it becomes necessary in another six or eight weeks.
The question looming over the next Congress is whether the fiscal cliff vote with its majority of Democrats and only 85 Republican votes, a third of the GOP caucus, is a one-time occurrence or could serve as a model for future legislation. While the strong showing of Hispanics in the election should prompt Congress to act, Pelosi noted that in her welcoming remarks to the new Congress, only the Democratic side of the aisle stood and cheered when she mentioned immigration reform. Republicans remained in their seats. A few started clapping “until their neighbor said ‘stop it.’ I could see that,” said Pelosi, “and it was stunning.” You’d think they would “at least fake it or something,” she said, comparing the difference between the two political parties to North Korea and South Korea “with our side all ablaze with colors and enthusiasm and sparkle in their eyes, and immigration, rah!”–and the other side grim and unsmiling and “just totally dark” in their business suits.
The Democrats only need 17 Republican votes to join them and reach a majority to pass immigration reform, or anything else for that matter, but Pelosi is a realist. “No bill will come to the floor with 17 Republicans.” What about 30–or 85–or 100? Where is the breaking point? Pelosi says Democrats told the speaker how many votes they could bring on the fiscal cliff deal (and in the end, they brought more), but John Boehner never revealed how many votes he had. Pelosi thinks he expected more than the 85 he delivered. “You’re negotiating with people who don’t have the votes,” she says.
Asked about the prospects for gun control in the House, Pelosi corrects the questioner, saying, “We talk about gun-violence prevention,” which encompasses a broad array of initiatives, and banning the sale of assault weapons because otherwise gun-rights proponents portray it as confiscation. Pelosi had just come from a meeting of the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee, where a gun-violence-prevention task force headed by California Rep. Mike Thompson has been established and where the importance of rallying outside groups was underscored. Pelosi dismissed talk of a march on Washington, saying “A groundswell across America is what’s needed, not a day in Washington.”
She knows the challenge ahead. She was a foot soldier in the Congress when the assault weapons passed in 1994. “A lot of members lost because of it,” she recalled. Foremost among them was Texas Rep. Jack Brooks, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee. He opposed the ban but took the crime bill that contained the ban to the House floor and in the next election he was gone, just like that, and he was “King” of the Hill, said Pelosi. She visited Brooks in October, shortly before he died at almost age 90, and they talked about that vote. He said he had no regrets.
What Pelosi calls “my real epiphany” occurred when she visited a day-care center in San Francisco. “The subject has always been one that I’ve had my views on, but when you go to a day-care center, and somebody pops a balloon, and the kids say ‘duck,’ you know something is really wrong.”
Knowing something is wrong is one thing. Doing something about it is the challenge before Congress. What Pelosi is saying is that if Congress is to succeed, the American people must be heard, and not just on Election Day.