How Pelosi tends a more divergent flock
House speaker's skills are being tested by Democrats' greater ideological diversity – a challenge that will intensify if the party picks up more seats in November.
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What House speaker wouldn't smile about a bigger majority with which to drive the legislative agenda? But it's also likely that a larger herd of Democratic lawmakers will mean a more diverse group that could prove harder for Ms. Pelosi to control.
Whether she can manage a caucus that is even more diverse than the current one may well become a defining test of what so far has been a disciplined speakership. Already, House Democrats are split on major issues such as how to wind down the Iraq war, domestic spending, and control of US borders. Moreover, many Democratic freshmen represent conservative districts: They're wary of government spending; oppose gun control, gay marriage, and abortion rights; and campaign at arm's length from national Democratic leaders, including Pelosi.
Pelosi calls these conservative Democrats her "majoritymakers," and she has so far taken care to accommodate their political needs. They've received visible committee assignments, early infusions of party money to campaign war chests, and an open door to their concerns.
For former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, the rule was to never allow a vote that would not be supported by most of the Republican caucus, or "a majority of the majority." For Pelosi, the calculus is more complex, say colleagues who have worked with her on tough issues.
While she won't move a bill to the floor that will fracture the Democratic coalition, she is allowing recorded votes or hearings on controversial issues that can help vulnerable Democrats point to stands they have taken in reelection campaigns.
Take freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina, who won his seat in a former Republican district despite a campaign linking him with "San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi" and illegal immigrants. Early on, Mr. Shuler sought out the speaker to let her know that there would be votes where he could not back her, especially on issues related to his anti-abortion beliefs. Pelosi told him what she tells all caucus members, her aides say: that their job is to represent their district.
"He was very upfront with leadership folks when he was recruited to run, and they've done nothing to go back on their word in 1-1/2 years," says Andrew Whalen, a spokesman for Shuler. who is a member of the so-called Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats.
But freshmen Democrats in former GOP-dominated districts also need a record to bring back to constituents. For Shuler, that meant sponsoring a bill to get tough on border enforcement. Supported by most Republicans and many conservative Democrats, the bill proposed adding 8,000 border patrol agents to the US-Mexican border and mandating a verification system for employers to check the legal status of workers. But the bill riled members of the Hispanic Caucus, who dubbed it anti-immigrant, and set up a leadership crisis for Pelosi.