Wide swaths of House Democrats have said they attribute Election Day losses to the caucus’s lack of a unified message, a strong pitch they can sell to voters and, above all else, a true sense their actions will match up with their rhetoric.
So when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi broke with the White House last week and fought against a trillion-dollar spending package containing policy riders abhorred by her caucus, progressives cheered the return of their liberal champion.
“I would have felt a lot better if we had won,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said. “But I do feel good about the way Nancy stood up for what the majority of the caucus was saying.”
CPC First Vice Chairman Mark Pocan, D-Wis., echoed those remarks, saying Pelosi’s decision to reject the must-pass spending bill’s loosening of campaign finance rules and its rollback of portions of 2010′s Dodd-Frank bank overhaul “was a pivotal moment in that we were standing up for what the public wants.”
It was a watershed moment for Pelosi, who split with three of the nation’s top Democrats — President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and her own No. 2 on the House Democratic leadership team, Steny H. Hoyer — to vote “no” against “big banks and big donors.”
“We have to make a clear distinction between what we stand for and what we are, and who [Republicans] stand for and who they are,” said Ellison’s co-chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva. The Arizona Democrat said he personally thanked Pelosi for helping keep all but 57 Democrats from voting for the “cromnibus,” which the House passed, 219-206.
With 138 Democrats joining her in rejecting the cromnibus, Pelosi could be heading into the 114th Congress with a strong hand. In taking such a dramatic stance favored by the left-leaning base, she endeared herself to even the most liberal rank-and-file lawmakers who had post-election gripes with leadership. She could even end up walking into work in January with her own Democratic version of the Republicans’ “hell no” caucus, a voting bloc dedicated to thwarting the House GOP leadership’s best-laid plans.
But tacking to the left to make a point just hours before the government was due to shut down did not win over every House Democrat. Many of the more moderate members of the caucus said it wasn’t what they had in mind when they said they wanted leaders to exercise a new vision after the dismal showing at the ballot box in November.
“I have been very surprised since the election about the lack of introspection in our party about what we’re not doing right,” said Rep. Scott Peters, a freshman Democrat from California who barely won re-election in one of the toughest races this year. “To think that somehow we would be rewarded for shutting down the government, politically, is just — I don’t see that there was any way to win in that.”
Democrats who supported the cromnibus were taken aback by Pelosi’s scathing takedown of Obama for urging passage of the cromnibus. For hours on Dec. 11, Pelosi empowered leaders of the Progressive Caucus and Financial Services ranking member Maxine Waters, D-Calif., to whip votes and bolster the opposition, competing with personal phone calls to members by Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other administration officials.
One House Democrat wasn’t impressed, saying, “I think anybody who believes that taking on President Obama is gonna fire up our base, and demonstrate that we’re willing to fight, is smoking something.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest assured reporters at a news conference the day after there was no damage done between the two.
“She is as an effective a leader and more persuasive an advocate for the members of her caucus than, I think, probably any other leader in either party in recent history in Congress,” Earnest said of Pelosi. “And that makes her not just a good partner, it makes her a really effective one.”
Pelosi’s allies insist she never wanted to shut down government over the policy riders, with a Democratic leadership aide pointing out that if a shutdown had been her intent, she would have made good on it. She could have formally whipped against the bill herself. She reportedly told members at the end of an hours-long caucus meeting on Dec. 11, “I’m giving you the leverage to do whatever you have to do. We have enough votes to show [Republicans], ‘Never to do this again.’”
Pelosi didn’t want a shutdown, said the Democratic leadership aide, nor was she prepared to take Speaker John A. Boehner’s alternative offer if the cromnibus couldn’t get the sufficient number of votes — a three-month continuing resolution that would have inevitably led to a longer-term spending deal negotiated by House and Senate Republicans, one that would have been even more unpalatable for Democrats.
“Had it gone down, I believe it would have led to a great deal of anguish and pain for Democrats and Democratic constituencies,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a vice chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, who voted in favor of the bill.
The same aide said Pelosi was actually trying to prolong the suspense for House Republicans to the point where Boehner would finally cave and scrub the cromnibus clean of the riders to secure full Democratic support.
Many House Democratic members and aides interviewed by CQ Roll Call scoffed at the suggestion Pelosi had that kind of leverage. They said if she actually wanted the cromnibus to pass, policy riders and all, her act was disingenuous and designed solely to reaffirm support among her base. They also didn’t think it was possible Pelosi could not have known about the policy riders ahead of time, as she has contended, making her horror at their inclusion also something of an act.
But regardless of what Pelosi’s motivations might have been, her high-stakes, eleventh-hour gambit to extract a better deal undeniably won her points among members who saw the episode as a sign that their leader had done the kind of post-election soul-searching for which they had been clamoring.
A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, however, said the cromnibus episode was not the panacea for all liberal Democrats’ concerns about the direction of the party.
“I don’t think this moment is that,” the member said, “but I think it showed that even if [leaders] don’t say it, they acknowledge that we need to operate differently.
“We’re going to have to see a lot more of what we saw the other night,” he said.