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Pelosi's role diminishes under Obama

The House speaker says that after years of battling Bush, she is comfortable with her new position, with someone else setting the party's agenda and priorities. But it's crowded at the top.

March 24, 2009|Richard Simon and Mark Z. Barabak

WASHINGTON AND SAN FRANCISCO — After decades scaling the Democratic Party ranks, Nancy Pelosi reached a pinnacle in January 2007, becoming the first woman speaker of the House.

For two years, alongside Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, she fashioned the party's agenda on Capitol Hill, fought a rear-guard action against the Bush administration and, more broadly, helped define what it means to be a Democrat.

Now, however, it's gotten crowded at the top.

Under President Obama, a breakthrough figure in his own right, the party has a new face, an ambitious platform and a commanding voice -- and Pelosi is discovering what it means to be back in a lesser role, with someone else setting the party's agenda and establishing its priorities.

The San Francisco Democrat says she is comfortable with her new position, after years of battling President George W. Bush.

"It's what we've hoped for, worked for, prayed for," Pelosi said of the Obama administration. "The difference between being the speaker without a president of your party and the speaker with Barack Obama as president is night and day."

But, inevitably, tensions have emerged.

Pelosi wants Bush's tax cuts for wealthy Americans to expire sooner than Obama has proposed. She is more receptive than Obama to a congressional investigation of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program and criminal prosecution of any officials who used torture as a weapon to fight terrorism.

She was a strong backer of a punitive tax on bonuses paid to AIG employees, a move that has drawn a cool response from Obama.

Pelosi questioned whether Obama's proposal for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq went far enough and made her feelings known in a frank discussion before the president revealed his plans, as well as in public statements after his announcement.

Although Obama has pledged a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington and tried to win GOP support, Republicans complained that Pelosi had shut them out of negotiations on the economic stimulus bill. Privately, she counseled Obama and his advisors that courting House Republicans was a waste of time (and surely felt vindicated when not a single one voted to support the far-reaching legislation.)

"Yes, we wrote this bill," she told reporters amid the GOP griping. "We won this election."

That sort of blunt talk may reflect the reality in the House, where Pelosi has the power -- and the inclination, when she sees fit -- to run roughshod over the minority.

But it won't necessarily help the president pass his proposals into law.

"Obama has shown an instinct for finding the middle, both to avoid being pulled too far to the left and to win enough Republican votes to pass anything in the Senate," said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and longtime Congress watcher.

"But that might not sit well with Pelosi's instincts and preferences. So we might well be looking at an ongoing tug of war. . . . If either of them allows the tension to bubble to the surface, it could well explode into a volcano that would disrupt the Democrats' agenda."

Beyond their policy differences and disparate styles -- the contrast between the hard-charging Pelosi and low-key Obama could hardly be greater -- there are larger forces that almost guarantee a certain amount of friction between the speaker and the president.

Obama won his mandate directly from the American people. Pelosi, by contrast, owes her position to the 254 Democratic members of the House.

As such, the speaker is determined to protect congressional prerogatives and prevent Democrats from taking politically risky votes that could endanger their seats and weaken the party majority -- even if that means undermining Obama and sometimes thwarting his goals.

"This isn't going to be a Congress that's BTU'd," said a longtime friend and occasional Pelosi advisor, referring to a politically damaging vote by House Democrats who passed an energy consumption tax under President Clinton, only to have the administration abandon the proposal after Senate opposition.

"She'll be very pragmatic about making sure the moderate and conservative members of her caucus can get reelected," said Pelosi's friend, a Californian who did not want to be identified discussing their relationship.

At the same time, Pelosi has to reckon with a number of powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill, including two friends, California's George Miller (D-Martinez) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who seem intent on shaping major legislation to their liking, regardless of what Obama or more conservative lawmakers might prefer.

That could leave Pelosi caught between the president, her longtime liberal allies and Democrats more to the right, though Miller, for one, said trying to balance those interests was not such a bad problem.

"You have a president of the United States of the same party," Miller said. "That's flat out exciting, and the benefits overwhelm every other consideration."

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