House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds up a penny during a press conference… (Harry Hamburg / Associated…)
At times she has looked to be an afterthought, a relic of a bygone era. Republicans haven’t bothered to court her. And the White House, at times, has appeared to ignore her.
But now they’re going to need Nancy Pelosi.
As the clock ticks down toward a possible government default, it appears to be less and less likely that a package can be crafted that will appease the large bloc of House conservatives who either oppose raising the debt ceiling on principle or won’t vote to hike it without massive cuts in federal spending.
That means that Pelosi, the former speaker who presides over a shrunken Democratic minority in the House, likely will come into play. Any plan that passes the Senate, be it the fallback option by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or a more ambitious proposal like the one being crafted by the so-called Gang of Six, will only be able to pass the House if Democratic votes push it over the finish line.
So there Pelosi was Thursday, at a news conference at the Capitol, taking questions, mixing it up, almost like the old days had returned. She seemed to be in good spirits and enjoying the moment, even taking a few cracks at the George W. Bush administration for good measure.
“We all have an obligation to prevent our country from going into default,” Pelosi said.
The Californian hasn’t been in this position very often this year. The Republican rout last November crippled Democrats in the House. She surprised many by deciding to stay on as minority leader, choosing to remain a lonely progressive voice in a chamber swept by "tea party" fever. The large GOP majority means that Democrats are rarely a legislative factor -- and Pelosi has lost her status as conservatives' Public Enemy No. 1.
That also has meant that the White House hasn't had much use for her either. Earlier this month, she appeared blindsided by reports that President Obama was considering tinkering with Medicare and Social Security as a means of reaching a deficit-reduction deal with Speaker John Boehner. But she quickly became a ringing voice on the left pushing back on the proposal.
Most of the talks at the White House have been built around the dynamic between Obama and Boehner, with Senate leaders Harry Reid and McConnell serving in supporting roles. Pelosi, while present, didn’t seem to have a card to play.
Now she does. The GOP holds 241 seats in the House; it takes 218 to pass a bill. Already, 80 or so Republicans have signed off on a letter condemning the McConnell plan, which employs a procedural maneuver that allows the debt ceiling to be raised while giving Republicans a chance to vote against it with no consequences.
Say, then, that the McConnell plan becomes the only vehicle that can pass the Senate and avert disaster. That means Republican leaders would need about 60 Democrats in the House right out of the box to help pass it, and likely more. In fact, if it becomes clear that Pelosi will work with Boehner and the White House to pass such a bill, an even larger swath of Republicans may try to jump ship to force as many Democrats in the chamber as possible to vote for it.
But Democrats aren’t embracing the McConnell plan either. (The truth is, no one really likes it, which is why it probably will pass, cynical Hill-watchers say.) And Pelosi, the veteran vote-counter that she is, isn’t going to roll over. She’ll want to ensure that whatever spending cuts are part of a final package, they don’t disproportionately fall on her sacred cows.
The former speaker spent Wednesday back in the game, talking to Boehner and marching to the White House with her lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, for talks with the president. And Thursday, she made clear that she’ll only support a bill that, as she said, won’t harm the nation’s economy, and addresses the deficit, suggesting that any GOP-favored bill that only features spending cuts is a non-starter.
Pelosi said that, like just about everyone on the Hill, she has no idea what form a final package might take -- just 12 days away from a potentially catastrophic default. But instead of the Democratic voice in the House wilderness that she has become of late, she sounded more like the pragmatic arm-twister she once was.
“What the bill looks like,” she said, “will depend on who can vote for it.”