Pelosi's Balancing Act

April 9, 2009

WASHINGTON—"I give Republicans credit for this: They vote the way they believe.... I think that they vote with more integrity than they get credit for."

That review of Republican motivations and commitments comes not courtesy of a partisan blog but from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House.

During an interview at the Capitol shortly after Congress broke for its recess, Pelosi spoke a simple truth too often ignored in the tiresome laments about the loss of bipartisanship in Washington. "If you can’t find common ground, that doesn’t mean you’re partisan," she said. "It just means you believe two different things."

The congressional break comes at a moment when one cliche about Pelosi should be disposed of for good, that a San Francisco liberal was imposing her agenda on our pragmatic new president.

How many times earlier this year did you hear a variation on "Obama let Pelosi write the stimulus"? As Pelosi noted, "Anybody who knows Barack Obama knows that he’s going to have the recovery package that he wants."

Republicans seem to have realized that this argument wasn’t working, so they have taken to criticizing President Obama directly. Recent polls suggest this strategy isn’t helping the GOP much, either.

By comparison with her recent predecessors, Pelosi is a strong speaker of the House. She has not centralized power as much as Newt Gingrich did in the 1990s, but she has far more control than did Tom Foley, the previous Democratic speaker.

She also faces a Republican Party much more conservative and Southern than it used to be. It’s easy to forget how dramatic the shift has been over time—and therefore easy to miss how much of the current nostalgia for bipartisanship is unrealistic.

In the Congress elected in 1960, there were 174 Republicans. Only seven came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, while 35 came from New York or New England, the heartlands of moderate Republicanism.

In the current Congress, 72 of the 178 Republicans come from the Old Confederacy. Almost all of them are deeply conservative. There is not a single Republican House member from New England, and only three from New York.

Yet Pelosi knows that her own majority still depends upon members elected from relatively conservative rural and suburban districts. Of the 254 Democrats in the House—it takes 218 to form a majority—49 come from districts carried by John McCain last year, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.

Pelosi wants to protect those 49, and the best evidence for how she is executing her balancing act came in the House budget resolution that left open the possibility that health care reform, but not a cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions, would pass under "reconciliation" rules.

This sounds technical, but it’s actually political. The reconciliation rules, set by agreement of both houses, would allow health care reform to get through the Senate with only a bare majority of 51 votes. But cap-and-trade will need 60 votes.

Why the different treatment of the two issues? "The priority, of course, is to pass health care," Pelosi said without blinking. She still hopes it will pass with an expansive bipartisan majority, but added: "We cannot abandon the effort if we don’t have 60 votes."

On the other hand, Pelosi knows that energy issues do not divide neatly along partisan lines. Regional differences, notably among coal states, oil-and-gas-states and the rest of the country, often count more than party.

"There are enough Democrats who are for health care reform," she said. "You don’t know where those Democratic votes are on cap-and-trade." Her view is that unless both houses can forge a broad compromise that will get at least 60 votes in the Senate, the whole effort will die anyway.

Indeed, the difficulties on this issue were underscored Wednesday when the administration said it might move more slowly in auctioning off emissions permits.

During the interview last week, Pelosi called attention to a small statue of a coal miner that she has always kept in her office. It was a gift to her father from the late Jennings Randolph, who represented West Virginia in the House and Senate.

She said she points to the statue when she discusses energy and environmental questions with her mining-state colleagues. "They need not fear what I would write as a bill, (that I would) say, ’Let’s write a bill without coal,’" she said. "You can’t."

Those are not the words of an ideologue. In fact, that’s the one thing Nancy Pelosi isn’t.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).