Nancy Pelosi was in the middle of responding to a question about the CIA director apologizing to Senate Intelligence Committee leaders for hacking into their computers when an aide came in with a note telling her the Republicans had pulled the border resources bill from the House floor.
“It wasn’t bad enough for their members,” she explained. Relieved the legislation had failed, she said, “Thank God, it was so awful,” then adding with an edge of sarcasm, “Now that they’ve done their harm of the day.”
A television monitor tuned to C-SPAN with the sound turned down was behind the House Minority Leader as she took questions from a small group of journalists before Congress adjourns for its five-week district work period, otherwise known as vacation time. Clearly disgusted and frustrated with the GOP-led House, and the partisan fervor that led to the first time ever that the chamber will sue a president, she detailed how the border bill had gone through several iterations, becoming more punitive toward illegal immigrants and ratcheting down its cost in order to attract more GOP votes.
The ploy didn’t work, or as Pelosi put it, “They didn’t eat their vegetables.” And that meant Republicans wouldn’t get dessert. A companion bill slated for a vote to defund DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was shelved. If they’d eaten their vegetables, Republicans would have then voted to strip money from DACA, the program President Obama put in place by executive action in 2012 to allow illegal immigrants under the age of 30 brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country.
Republicans who think they have a legitimate beef against Obama for abuse of power probably weren’t in the Congress in 2007 when Pelosi became speaker in a Democratic-controlled House elected on a wave of anti-war fervor. Liberal Democrats wanted to impeach President George W. Bush, but Pelosi took it off the table. Why didn’t she pursue impeachment? “I didn’t think it was right for the American people,” she said. “We were starting our new majority, and the first thing we do is impeach President Bush?” She didn’t think so, saying, “History makes its assessment and verdict.”
It wasn’t an obvious or easy course for a lifelong liberal who had voted against the Iraq War, which had been pursued on the basis of false intelligence. “I had hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. We voted in the House and Senate to end the war. President Bush vetoed and we didn’t have the votes to override. We had to fund the troops. They are there—we can vote not to send them but they are there.”
The Democratic House could have defunded the war; that’s how the Vietnam War came to an ignominious close. Pelosi chose not to do that, and some in her party have never forgiven her. “In a certain segment of the left, I will never recover from that,” she said. Of course she has no regrets, and if Boehner wanted to shut down talk of impeachment in his caucus, he could do that in an instant, she says. “You just have to say it was off the table, instead of appealing to the wink-and-nod crowd” as he is doing. Asked how she managed the sizable number of progressives in the Democratic caucus, she shot back, “I led… I led.”
Pelosi talked about the “opportunity cost” of the House spending its time debating a lawsuit against Obama while legislation awaiting action goes unattended. Pointing to the oil painting of Abraham Lincoln that hangs in her Capitol Hill conference room, she said Lincoln knew public support is everything, and the public is not reacting positively to Boehner’s lawsuit. A Public Policy Polling survey finds only 41 percent of the country believe the suit is legitimate, compared to 51 percent who call it a political stunt.
The numbers are more lopsided when it comes to the use of taxpayer money to pursue legal action: 56 percent think it’s a bad use; 36 percent say it’s a good use.
“This is silly in its context but serious in its purpose, it is not frivolous,” Pelosi says. “This is the Congress of the United States. C’mon—this is the first branch of government. What are we doing?”
Asked if she was secretly smiling since talk of impeachment is rallying Democrats, she insisted, “No,” then noted that a barrage of money from the grassroots had come in, “74,000 new donors, people we never heard from before, almost spontaneously.” Republicans are energized by talk of impeachment, but so are Democrats. There’s also evidence, Pelosi says, the hyper-partisanship is “turning off the middle. Maybe that’s what they’re going to try to do, out-base us,” she says. “Fifty percent of our vote doesn’t even know there’s an election.”
Reaching those voters takes more than the Middle Class Jumpstart of worthy policy initiatives that Pelosi champions. It requires something on the scale of an earthquake, which is why impeachment talk is so tantalizing.