OPINION — When Nancy Pelosi’s supporters talk about her strengths for the job of speaker, “counting votes” is usually right at the top of the list. But counting hardly describes the process that Pelosi has deployed for the last 16 years as the Democratic leader in the House to pass more landmark pieces of legislation than any other sitting member of Congress.
Part kindly godmother (think baby gifts and handwritten notes), part mentor, part shark, part party boss, Pelosi’s uncanny ability to move legislation may be the most important, yet least discussed, aspect of the Democrats’ internal debate about who should lead them into the future.
Is Pelosi polarizing? Of course, but that’s what Republicans have gotten in return for the $100 million of ads they ran to define her. Is she too old? The late Sen. Strom Thurmond wasn’t too old to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee, even when he was 20 years older than Pelosi is today. Is she the breath of fresh air some freshman Democrats are looking for in their leadership? Maybe not, but do they want to feel good or pass bills? If passing bills is the goal, Washington veterans are scratching their heads about why Pelosi isn’t these new Democrats’ first choice for speaker instead of their last.
The votes that Pelosi has pushed through in her career reads like a wish list for liberals even today — the Affordable Care Act (complete with protections for pre-existing conditions); the DREAM Act to give legal status to undocumented immigrants brought here as minors; the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which extended equal employment protections to LGBTQ Americans; and the cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse emissions, which remains the only climate change legislation ever passed by a house of Congress. The blame for the fact that several of those bills never became law rests on the shoulders of many Democrats in Washington, but Pelosi isn’t one of them.
Watch: Pelosi Talks Midterm ‘Wave,’ Says She Has Votes for Speakership
A look under the hood of the Pelosi whip operation reveals a give-take-and-twist that she learned at the knee of her father, Tom D’Alesandro, a congressman and later mayor of Baltimore. As an old-school pol, he kept a detailed “favor file,” to track constituents who asked for, received, and ultimately owed a favor back to the operation. To practice her penmanship as a girl, Pelosi helped keep the list by writing name after name after name on long yellow sheets of paper. The politics of the personal defines Pelosi’s approach today.
“I think she is just willing to use every tool at her disposal to take away reasons you can’t be with her,” one Democratic chief of staff said. Those tools start with carrots, before the votes are ever on the calendar. Calls, notes, checks and fundraisers come during campaigns; face-to-face check-ins follow on the Hill.
Leading up to major votes, Pelosi wants to know what it would take to get members to yes. Before the House debate on the ACA, she convened simultaneous groups of lawmakers in separate conference rooms in the Capitol and shuttled between the two to hammer out their differences. Heading into the vote for another bill, Pelosi’s staff gave her a list of 62 members who had not committed to vote for the bill to see which ones she wanted to call herself. “I’ll take them all,” she said.
“You can almost hear the ‘Jaws’ soundtrack when she’s hunting votes on the floor,” said a person who knows Pelosi’s tactics well. Another said, “It’s click-click-click (meaning the sound of her heels walking in the marble hallways toward them), she’s coming for you.”
When direct appeals haven’t gotten the job done, Pelosi is known to turn to her outside game, activating anyone who knows a member and could change their minds.
In 2010, when Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Notre Dame graduate, was slow to commit to voting for the ACA, Pelosi reached out to Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame, who in turn reached out to Donnelly. “I can’t believe you had Father Hesburgh call me,” Donnelly told her later. But it worked. Donnelly was a yes.
The year before, when Ohio Rep. Zack Space was similarly undecided on the climate bill, Pelosi called Greek-American donors for their help with Space, a descendant of Greek immigrants. Like Donnelly, Space voted yes. So did Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, after a friend from elementary school called at the behest of the speaker’s office to convince him on the DREAM Act. “Someone I went to second grade with called and was like, ‘Tom, you might not vote for the DREAM Act? I know we haven’t talked in 32 years, but …” Perriello told Ezra Klein in 2010.
Whether it’s carrots, sticks, committee chairmanships or the threat of no committees at all, at the end of the day, “What the speaker wants, the speaker gets,” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a key Pelosi lieutenant, once said.
If there’s anything in Pelosi’s legislative strategy that she didn’t seem to see coming when she was speaker the last time around, it was losing the majority in 2011 amid complaints that she passed too much legislation, including bills that Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama couldn’t get through the Democratic Senate. But is today’s Democratic Party looking for a leader to soft pedal their agenda? It didn’t seem like it on Election Day.
If Pelosi is elected leader again, her team says she’ll focus on prescription drug prices, infrastructure, and government reform, all items that President Donald Trump has said he wants action on, but has failed to pass.
But it’s starting to look like the hardest vote Pelosi will have to whip at this point is her own race for speaker. Although the vast majority of the caucus is expected to support her, 16 veteran and incoming members released a letter on Monday saying they will oppose her efforts to take back the gavel. Although 16 isn’t remotely enough to win a speaker vote, it’s just enough to defeat one.
Cue the ‘Jaws’ soundtrack. There’s only one member of Congress who has shown she knows how to win a vote like this.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.
Correction, 9 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.