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.

lauren victoria burke/ap
Leader of the pack: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with fellow House members, spoke last week at a Capitol Hill news conference about legislative efforts to help veterans.

Democratic wins in three recent special elections for House seats, and expectations that Democrats will pick off even more Republican slots in November, are good news for Nancy Pelosi.

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.

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.

"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.

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