Pelosi’s Political Prowess Tested by Struggle for Biden Agenda
(Bloomberg) -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s struggle to deliver on President Joe Biden’s two biggest policy priorities has illustrated the distrust and divisions within her party at a time Democrats desperately want to show they can govern.
Democrats eked out a victory on a $550 billion public works bill late Friday night after months of wrangling between moderates and progressives. As soon as it was clear the bill would pass, Pelosi was surrounded by applauding members.
Shortly after, they advanced on a procedural vote a larger package, totaling more than $1.75 trillion in social and climate spending. But actual passage of that bill ended up being delayed amid still simmering intra-party differences.
Those votes started 15 hours after a turbulent day of arm twisting began, a new normal in a Washington where fractious Democrats control both chambers of Congress by the narrowest of majorities.
The ugly sausage making was on full display during the daylight hours, with leaders of the party’s largest factions making their case on Twitter and to the press. Passage of the public works package -- a massive legislative achievement that Biden will now sign into law -- happened just before midnight, long after most Americans had tuned out.
Pelosi, frequently praised by fellow Democrats as a master legislator, is suddenly feeling the limits of her power as she tries to assuage progressive and moderate factions that are each convinced they know the key to hanging on to control in Washington.
“She’s playing a very tough hand,” said Representative Jared Huffman, a progressive from California. “Far be it from me to offer technical critique to one of the greatest legislators of all time.”
The faith of others, however, was clearly fraying after months of endless intra-party battles and late nights with nothing to show for it.
Take it to the floor and just force people to vote, complained one frustrated senior House Democrat tired of the delays.
Unfortunately, said that Democrat, Pelosi has taken very few floor-vote gambles since she and then-President George W. Bush in 2008 put a $700 billion financial bailout bill on the House floor -- only to see it go down to stunning defeat.
As the stock markets were reeling, Pelosi and Bush scrambled to renegotiate, and the House came back the next day and passed the bailout plan. But the sting of the initial defeat has been long lasting.
Pelosi on Friday opted to play the safe hand, and even then only after several fits and starts. She abruptly scrapped an earlier planned vote on the massive social safety net measure because she could not scrounge up the needed votes in a chamber where Democrats hold a bare 221-213 seat majority.
That was the second time in eight days she pulled the plug on such a vote.
“Welcome to my world. This is the Democratic Party,” Pelosi said of her decision, reciting an oft-used explanation that hers “is not a lockstep party” but one full of admirable vitality and diversity.
But Pelosi was noticeably frustrated. She partly blamed the intrusiveness of the 24/7 news cycle for the snags, saying that “all of this would have been done in the past.”
Pelosi, flanked by fellow Democratic leaders, called the plan for a vote on the infrastructure bill and a procedural vote to advance the broader bill “two giant steps forward.” Still, it took hours to convince moderates and progressives to follow her plan.
Some senior Democrats say none of this should be taken as a sign that Pelosi does not remain in control.
“She is the master of her universe,” insisted Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
“She’s one of the greatest leaders of all time,” gushed Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters of California. “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
But several lawmakers and senior Democratic aides said the limits of her powers have come into clearer view in her efforts to get Biden’s agenda passed.
“I think this is an indication of how difficult it is in a modern society and Congress with very small margins to really forge consensus,” said Representative Joe Morelle, a former majority leader of the New York state Assembly.
Contributing to the challenge, he said, is individual lawmakers making their case to a national audience on why they are withholding support.
“It’s creating real frustrations. This is no criticism of her at all -- I don’t know that anyone could do it better,” Morelle said. “But I also believe it’s creating frustrations for a lot of people that we don’t seem to reach consensus.”
With only three votes to spare, one little hiccup can blow the whole thing up -- and there have been a string of hiccups, noted one Democrat. She doesn’t have the luxury to cut people loose, let them do their own thing.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday accused Pelosi of “bullying” reluctant Democrats into voting for a package they do not support.
But some Democrats say that, in fairness, Pelosi is not only saddled with her own slim majority, but also a 50-50 split in the Senate, where Democrats carry an out-sized ability to gum up negotiations on key details.
“That was all up to the voters,” Waters said of the hand Pelosi was dealt.
But it is against this backdrop that groups of House Democrats with little previous national exposure have stood up to her publicly, reciting their demands. Centrists and moderates alike believe they are representing their constituencies, some from competitive swing districts.
Some seek to pin blame for the Democrats’ disappointing election showing Tuesday in Virginia and elsewhere on the House’s failure to pass Biden’s economic package -- complicated by Pelosi’s ultimately abandoned promise to party progressives not to pass the $550 billion infrastructure package until the larger social-safety bill was taken up.
Pelosi on Thursday did not discount that delay might have played a role.
“I think it would have been better if we had,” she said.
In the end, Pelosi will come away with a less-grand package than she and House Democrats initially envisioned. But she and others insist there will eventually be success and that the result will be, as Pelosi constantly promises, “historic and transformational.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.