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Pelosi’s Victory Lap

Pelosi updates reporters on Democratic reaction to the bipartisan $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Pelosi updates reporters on Democratic reaction to the bipartisan $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

As the House on Friday overwhelmingly passed the $1.1 trillion government spending bill, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi shook hands on the chamber floor.  

There’s an obvious reason for Ryan, just several weeks into the job, to be celebrating his legislative victory. But Pelosi, too, has reason to claim a win. The California Democrat has fewer ways to show strength than when she was speaker, of course. But catch-all government funding measures like the one passed Friday are one way, since conservative opposition to such measures make Democratic support a must.  

On Friday morning before the House was scheduled to vote on final passage, Pelosi gathered nearly a dozen print reporters from the congressional press corps into a conference room in her office, spread with fruit, bagels and tiny muffins.  

Sitting beside one of her top lieutenants, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York, Pelosi held court for nearly 45 minutes to discuss the Democratic wins in the omnibus and explain why even a lack of bankruptcy relief for Puerto Rico and a reversal of the ban on crude oil exports shouldn’t keep Democrats from supporting the package.  

It was also an opportunity for her to say she would, once again, help bail out the Republicans to avoid a shutdown. And to say that she’d extracted as good a deal for her party as possible in divided government.  

“I think what we’re here to say is — because you’ve asked over and over again, ‘Do we have the votes? Will it pass?’ — we’re here to tell you that, and why, and ‘why’ is very significant,” Pelosi said.  

“We’ve had to sort of calibrate how we presented this to members because … we were afraid [Republicans] might pull things out if more Republicans knew about what was in the bill,” she continued, explaining all the hesitation from Democrats in the hours after the bill was made public.  

Earlier in the week, she had instructed members in a closed-door meeting to “keep on their long faces” and not speak publicly about everything Democrats won in the omnibus, according to a senior House aide. She wanted them to avoid speaking about provisions they fought to include, as well as poison pill policy riders they insisted be removed, instead suggesting they just say they were “still reading the language” when asked how they planned to vote.  

“Now they’re done, that’s it. There’s no way they can change the rule or anything like that; the speaker said it’s closed,” said Pelosi on Friday, “so we feel pretty good about bragging about what’s in the bill to get our votes and also not risking changing anything in the bill.”  

According to the senior aide, it might have been a reasonable concern.  

Pelosi and Ryan met for dinner last Friday to discuss the status of negotiations, which were largely being handled by appropriators and staff. During a phone call the following Monday, Ryan told Pelosi he “had to defend having dinner with you.”  

Any sign that Ryan was talking to “the enemy” could be fatal for the omnibus’s status and the speaker’s credibility to be a reliable advocate for his conference, though the two leaders, in the final days of negotiations, spoke frankly to each other about what would and wouldn’t work for their members.  

Ryan reportedly at one point acknowledged Republicans would get “zero” of the policy riders they wanted included except one to lifting the oil export ban. Which was, incidentally, the sticking point for many Democrats.  

“They wanted big oil so much they gave away the store,” Pelosi said at her Friday breakfast roundtable meeting.  

She also secured a commitment from Ryan that Republican leaders would start the process of providing bankruptcy relief to Puerto Rico at the start of the new year.  

Pelosi’s negotiating style is somewhat controversial. Before Friday’s vote, some Democrats said by the time she’d said publicly that she would vote for the omnibus, she’d waited so long she’d risked allowing certain fellow progressives to try and bring the bill down.  

A concerted effort from all areas of the House Democratic leadership apparatus Thursday to make sure the votes were all lined up suggested at least some last-minute anxiety.  

They stopped short of launching a formal whip operation, but senior Democrats still encouraged members to accept the negotiated omnibus despite some provisions they opposed.  

And Pelosi denied that Democrats ever really whip — a claim that only underscores how confident she is in her own power of persuasion.  

“We build consensus in our caucus. …People either come to a conclusion or they don’t,” she explained. “We respect their judgment. But we want to make sure their judgment is grounded in fact.”  


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