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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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On the one hand, Pelosi didn't want to upset Hispanic voters just months before a general election, but she also didn't want to send a message to conservative districts that Democrats can't deliver on issues that matter to them. When Democratic leaders balked at moving the bill through committee and to the floor, Shuler and other Blue Dogs forced the issue by backing a petition to force a floor vote. The bipartisan bill has 226 sponsors, but only 189 to date have signed the discharge petition, short of the 218 needed to move the bill to the floor.

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"A discharge petition is a tool of the minority," said a House leadership aide. But after the petition began gaining Democrats' signatures, Pelosi worked out a compromise: a series of three hearings on issues underlying the bill – but no committee markup or floor vote.

House GOP leaders say the move gives conservative Democrats a bragging point to constituents but won't advance legislation or change conditions on the border.

"Democrats have made a choice in the last 24 months to be politically successful rather than legislatively successful," says Rep. Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip. "To some extent, this has been created by their success ... in finding Democrats willing to run like they were Republicans on the issues. That may be a good political strategy, but it's not a good strategy in terms of achieving the agenda that the speaker herself is for," he adds.

In response, House GOP leaders have tried to force "vulnerable Democrats to choose between Nancy Pelosi and their constituents, who clearly don't share her views," says Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner.

The next test for Pelosi could come early next week, when the House returns to take up a $165 billion war-funding bill. The Senate stripped out language in the House bill that linked President Bush's war-funding request to troop withdrawals. It also added domestic spending, including $51 billion in new education benefits for veterans, which are not offset by spending cuts or new revenue sources.

For many conservative Democrats, the failure to pay for the new benefits is a big problem.

"If a board for any major company acted like that, they would be removed or fired immediately. We'll just have to dip in to the 'Republic of China kitty' again – until they say no," says Rep. Allen Boyd (D) of Florida, a leader of the Blue Dog coalition.

But asked if the Blue Dogs would vote against the bill, Representative Boyd said they would "wait to see what House leadership wants to do and how they will handle it."

"We believe this generation of Americans should pay and not future ones," he said.

Pelosi isn't signaling how she will respond to this bill. "With today's vote, the Republicans have shown that they are confused and are in disarray. House Republicans refused to pay for a war they support, and by voting against the GI [education] bill, they refused to support our veterans when they come home," she said.