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Delegating Lets Pelosi Focus on 2012

Rep. Carolyn Maloney was in full district working mode last week, meeting constituents and tending to the home fires when her phone rang. It was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who told the New York Democrat she wanted her back in Washington, D.C., for a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on contraception.

“When she called me to come back here, I thought, ‘Ugh,’” Maloney said. “But then I thought, ‘This is an important issue. She’s working, [and] I should come down and be working too to support her and support the committee.’”

Pelosi’s persuasive talents and work ethic are legendary. But while the California Democrat is engaged in events such as the partisan tussle over contraception coverage that quickly grew into a national debate, she has delegated more of that work to her subordinates as she focuses on winning the majority and the Speaker’s gavel.

“Our Members are out there talking about reigniting the American dream,” she said last week after the Steering and Policy Committee’s quickly called hearing on contraception. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done … and we’re ready for the fight.”

By dispatching the likes of Maloney and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) on the contraception issue, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) on the budget front, Pelosi is increasingly giving herself the freedom to pick her spots inside the Dome while focusing on media and fundraising outside it.

She cut a tongue-in-cheek video poking fun at satirist Stephen Colbert’s super PAC that drew more than 330,000 views on YouTube. On Wednesday she appeared on “The Colbert Report” to plug Democratic legislation, the DISCLOSE Act, to require more campaign finance disclosure. She sat down with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that same night.

“Maddow to talk to the base and push a bigger message, Colbert to discuss DISCLOSE and to humanize her, and today a hearing to defend women,” one Democratic strategist observed. “She’s hitting all the right spots.”

Democratic aides say Pelosi has spent much of past year trying to re-energize a demoralized Caucus and building an operation to regularly attack Republicans. Now, those aides said, that operation is in place and she is in full electoral mode.

“She’s been the Minority Leader before and she knows the only thing the Minority Leader is supposed to do is become the Speaker, and the way to do that is win a bunch of races,” one aide said.

Pelosi regularly asserts that redistricting has been a plus for Democrats, while Democrats note that President Barack Obama’s approval numbers have stabilized, as has a nascent economic recovery. Just like in 2006, the last time Pelosi was Minority Leader on the hunt for the speakership, she is repeating the same themes at every media hit and raising money. So far this cycle, Pelosi has raised more than $26 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and has appeared at more than 400 events.

“Having an agenda is very critical today, and quite frankly she has the understanding that we’re not going to be able to have that agenda unless we take the House back,” DeLauro said in an interview.

But unlike the runup to 2006, when Pelosi and then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) were fierce, partisan attack dogs, the California lawmaker now appears to be deferring to her colleagues, letting them go after Republicans while she sticks mostly to a positive message. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) frequents the cable news circuit, while Van Hollen regularly spoke to the press during the closely watched payroll tax negotiations. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were more involved in that process, and they caught the wrath of some in their caucus because of the deal that was cut; Pelosi saw no positive outcome for inserting herself into the debate.

She has even tread into Republican territory recently, from teasing Colbert about her “Lenten resolution to do good works and be kind to Republicans,” to speaking last Monday at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Pelosi praised President George H.W. Bush during her conversation with Andy Card, Bush’s deputy chief of staff who later served as President George W. Bush’s chief of staff. “His name and his presidency are synonymous with the word ‘civility,’” Pelosi said of the elder Bush.

The veteran lawmaker will mark her 25th year in Congress this June, and a host of events are expected to help her celebrate the occasion.

In the lead-up, Pelosi is scheduled to appear at the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Women in the World Summit in New York next month, and she will address the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in May.

Some Democratic observers suggest Pelosi’s media strategy, and even her kind words for President George H.W. Bush, are in part to prop up her own public image that Republicans effectively tarnished during the bruising 2010 midterm election cycle and will surely do again this year.

An aide to a moderate Democratic lawmaker declared relief at Pelosi’s current work, saying, “I haven’t really understood why she hasn’t done this kind of stuff previously.”

There is some speculation the Minority Leader might retire after the 2012 elections, but her allies insist her recent public outreach is not an attempt to solidify her legacy before leaving Congress. It’s quite the opposite, one former Pelosi aide said.

“She wants to be Speaker again and take back the House. And that’s what she’s trying to do,” the former aide said.

Then again, colleagues note that Pelosi’s multi-front response to the GOP criticism over contraception coverage was necessary for her to defend what she referred to as “the crowning jewel” of the Democratic agenda under the Obama administration.

“I would say her signature effort in Congress is the health care bill, and this is part of the health care bill,” Maloney said of the contraception coverage provision that Republicans charged was an infringement on religious freedom.

“We’re all thinking about tomorrow and 2012 because we see the importance of these issues and how they’re fighting to turn them back,” Maloney added.

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