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Pelosi's tactics come under scrutiny

Some say she was too partisan or didn't press her side hard enough. Others say the vote may benefit her party.

October 01, 2008|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first Democratic House speaker in 12 years, she promised to reach across the aisle to Republicans, to be "speaker of the House -- the entire House." In tribute to that spirit, she dressed in purple -- blending the red and blue that are symbols of partisan division.

But she did not look like a speaker of the whole House this week, as the financial industry bailout she helped negotiate was unexpectedly defeated. Republicans deserted in droves, Democrats were split, and Pelosi ended the floor debate before the vote with a passionate critique of Republican economic policies.

The Wall Street meltdown is among the biggest issues to face Congress in decades, and it posed a daunting test of Pelosi's leadership abilities: Hardly anyone in either party wanted to vote for the bill to spend $700 billion to shore up ailing financial firms, but most everybody worried about the economic and political consequences of failing to act.

The bill's narrow defeat was in part a tribute to political forces far beyond Pelosi's control: The deep-seated mistrust between the parties has made it increasingly difficult for the House to address major national problems that cry out for bipartisan solutions. Her GOP counterpart, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), is considered a weak minority leader, and President Bush's leverage within the party has all but vanished.

Still, Pelosi's handling of the issue provided a window onto her leadership style -- revealing the limits of her ability to win the trust of Republicans, to lean on her own rank and file, and to dispel her reputation as a polarizing figure.

Her closing speech was an assault on the Bush-era economic policies that Pelosi said had fueled the current financial woes. Some Republican leaders said Tuesday that her tone had cost them votes and contributed to the bill's defeat.

In truth, there was little in the San Francisco Democrat's speech that she had not said before. Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said she intended it as a last-ditch effort to increase support from balky liberal Democrats.

Still, some analysts said that Pelosi's onslaught may have been ill-timed and reinforced Republicans' view of her as too partisan.

"The moment to make that speech is after the vote, not before it," said Leon E. Panetta, a former House Democrat from California. "It's obviously a sensitive moment when you have a close vote on your hands."

"It was very provocative," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has worked as a Senate staffer. "When the issue is still in doubt, you don't poke a stick in the eye of the opposition."

After the bailout plan failed, Pelosi blamed Republicans for not having lived up to an agreement -- designed to give bipartisan cover to incumbents -- that each party would deliver half of its members in support of the bill. In the end, 60% of Democrats but only 33% of House Republicans voted for it.

Congressional leaders usually will not bring legislation to the floor unless they are sure it will pass -- especially when the stakes are so high.

Some critics now are asking whether Pelosi had faulty vote-counting intelligence. GOP leaders who were urging the rank and file to support the bailout plan said they told Democrats in advance that they did not have a lock on their votes but did not ask them to delay the debate. Democrats believed that Republicans were lowballing the count and that the measure would pass.

Others have questioned how committed Pelosi was to passing the bill because, once it became clear that it was failing, she made only limited efforts to change minds. She asked members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a bastion of opposition to the deal, to change their votes -- but did not deploy the kind of hardball tactics that leaders often use to win close contests.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that Pelosi told him: "This is an important bill to the country," but didn't try to twist his arm. He acknowledged that Pelosi could be tough, but said that in this case, "she wasn't."

What is more, she did not resort to the controversial -- but often effective -- strategy of extending the time for voting beyond the official 15-minute limit. She kept the vote open a bit longer, but nowhere near the three-hour tally that Republicans held in 2003 to pass a contentious Medicare bill.

Stacey Farnen Bernards, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), said Hoyer and Pelosi did not press harder because they viewed the issue as a "vote of conscience," not a matter of party discipline.

"They weren't going to aggressively twist arms on such an important vote," Bernards said.

It may be a politically effective strategy if, in the end, the bill changes to Democrats' liking. And it may have made it easier for Democrats, in these closing weeks of the 2008 campaign, to argue that Republicans are responsible for the nation's economic problems.

Said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, "Turmoil and uncertainty benefits the Democrats."


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