This week of big-ticket legislative action — Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) busiest so far as Speaker — has been months in the making, as she has inserted herself personally into debates deep in the weeds on energy policy and health care as Democrats aim to leave town for the August recess with a flourish.
Along the way, Pelosi has had to put out fires as portions of her Caucus repeatedly threatened to bolt, but Democratic lawmakers, particularly conservatives who often disagree with Pelosi’s liberal personal views, credit her with taking a practical approach to dealing with their concerns and reaching consensus.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of months of work on [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program], on energy, on appropriations,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.
Members credited a meeting Pelosi had last week with oil-patch Democrats with saving a major portion of the energy bill dealing with the regulation of drilling rights on public lands. The hydrocarbon caucus had threatened to kill the bill unless their concerns about the impact on domestic production and local jobs were met.
Pelosi agreed to soften the provisions if the Democrats would back the bill, and a deal was reached.
“We had a good meeting Friday, with 16 to 18 members of our caucus in Pelosi’s office and that’s what helped move things,” Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) said. “It couldn’t have happened without her.”
Green, who hails from Halliburton country, acknowledges he and Pelosi often have differing views but credits her with focusing on what can make a bill work.
“Watching her work the Members, even Members who probably weren’t going to vote for the bill — she wants to be a Speaker for the whole Caucus and protect the majority,” Green said. “I think she’s real practical. In a minority you can make message statements whereas in a majority you need to pass legislation and compromise.”
“Her role was crucial,” agreed Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). “There were meetings after meetings after meetings,” he said, adding that Pelosi had an intimate grasp of the details and Member concerns.
Similarly, Pelosi met Tuesday with about 35 conservative Blue Dog Democrats to try to feel out their concerns on energy and the SCHIP-Medicare package, among other issues, lawmakers said.
“These are all important bills that we need to get our work done and Nancy is very focused on victory on each and every one,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), one of the Blue Dogs. “Nancy Pelosi has really gotten her sea legs in the last few months.”
Cardoza said Pelosi’s support for rural lawmakers on last week’s farm bill was particularly important to building support among Blue Dogs. “She’s taking care of these districts,” Cardoza said.
“I think she’s working very hard to reach out to Blue Dogs and every member of the Caucus,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who nonetheless hasn’t shied away from criticizing plans to raise tobacco taxes or add spending for doctors.
“She’s getting into the nitty gritty details … and in some cases she’s been willing to do backflips,” Cooper said, and she’s been able to back it up. “She has the ability to enforce deals. There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Pelosi noted during the meeting with the Blue Dogs that she had deliberately cut the tobacco tax from 61 cents a pack to 45 cents a pack to help address their concerns. That was enough to get most on board, although some fiscal hawks like Cooper still think it is unwise.
Cooper also credited Pelosi for working to make sure rural Members were happy with the farm bill. “She bucked every editorial page in America on the farm bill. She took a big risk to reach out to an unfamiliar constituency.”
Pelosi also has yet to commit to pushing controversial amendments on vehicle mileage standards or renewable electricity standards on the floor, although she said Tuesday that she would not try to block them from consideration if Members seek to add them.
“I have not prohibited Members from bringing CAFE or electricity standards to the floor,” Pelosi said. “They may bring them, they may not. I am not prohibiting it from happening.”
A number of Democrats say either proposal could put the larger package in danger. Vehicle-mileage standards passed by the Senate are opposed as too strict by a significant number of Democrats from auto manufacturing states like Michigan, and the renewable electricity legislation has significant opposition from lawmakers in states with cheap power and little access to wind, solar or other renewable power sources. Lawmakers from those states fear they will in effect be paying a tax to states that have lots of sun or wind, driving up local electric rates.
“If a renewable electricity standard goes on the bill all bets are off,” Green said.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they are frustrated by a leadership style that they say stresses Democratic consensus ahead of what can be signed into law.
“Her pattern with respect to the energy committee indicates she doesn’t need an energy committee,” said Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (D-Texas), who also complained that Democrats drafted SCHIP and other legislation without consultation with Republicans.
“The process she’s using in this Congress will not result in any of this becoming law. You govern from the center and she’s attempting to govern from the left,” Barton contends. “People want accomplishments, they don’t want continued stalemate.”
But Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, defends Pelosi’s leadership, even though they have not always been in agreement on policy.
“Her role in my mind has been indispensable to the passing of balanced energy legislation,” Boucher said. Boucher said Pelosi has kept the Caucus unified and made sure all of the competing concerns are given a hearing.
“Her technique is very effective,” the Virginian said. “She gets continually briefed from committee chairs and subcommittee chairs. … Because she is in early in the process, she can be effective in making sure her objectives are reflected in the legislation. I think what she has done is create an effective balance. Not every group is happy, but not every group is entirely dissatisfied either.”
Boucher said the postponing of the most controversial energy proposals to the fall helped smooth the way for this week’s energy bill, although he acknowledged that amendments offering vehicle mileage or electricity standards still could come up.
Cardoza said the key for Democrats is showing they can deliver on their promises.
“The reality is most of this is going to run into a veto pen or a filibuster in the Senate,” Cardoza said. “We know that. The other party is in total obstruction mode.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said this week’s marathon of legislation is “important for all of us because what’s coming through is that we are getting things done. Each individual bill matters but the sum is greater than the parts. All of us in leadership, as [Pelosi] said emphatically, we are a team. Some people need help on the farm bill, some need help on energy, but the success helps all of us.”