Don't count Pelosi out

The defeated speaker will be back as minority leader — and won't shrink from a challenge

November 09, 2010|By Jules Witcover

Some House Democrats have professed to be surprised that their leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has decided to ask them to retain her as their chieftain, this time as minority leader, in the next congressional session based on the Republican takeover.

The argument apparently is that after the huge loss of seats in this fall's midterm elections, she should have voluntarily taken the blame and slinked off into political oblivion. Some even suggested she might well retire from Congress altogether.

Her House colleagues, of all people, should have know better. Instead, she announced it's her intention to stick around and work to protect the legislative accomplishments she helped gain over the last two years, starting with health-care reform. In a letter to her fellow Democrats, Ms. Pelosi wrote flatly that "we have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back."

Foremost of these is what the Republicans disparagingly call Obamacare. But it was the work of congressional leaders like Ms. Pelosi who largely forged the legislation while the president for months sat back and let them take the lead.

It fell to Ms. Pelosi as the leader of the often-rebellious House liberal caucus to try to assuage its demands for the so-called public option approach that would have competed with the private insurance industry. She then helped fashion the plan that finally passed the House and Senate and became law.

President Obama has vowed again to seek the bipartisanship in Congress that the Republicans so conspicuously rejected in his first two White House years. He professes to have learned the lesson of the "shellacking" he took at the polls this month.

It has been suggested that this task will be made all the harder with Ms. Pelosi as the minority leader, she being the Democrat the Republicans love most to hate. Indeed, the Republican National Committee, which ran on a "Fire Pelosi" slogan, more recently has hoisted a "Hire Pelosi" sign indicating its belief she will continue to be a rallying force on the right for the GOP. A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee gloatingly added, "We welcome her decision to run for House minority leader based on her proven ability to create jobs for Republican lawmakers."

But with President Obama's velvet-glove approach to the opposition still drawing criticism from his own party's left, having Ms. Pelosi remaining in place as the House Democratic leader assures that his own feet will be held to the fire against Republican efforts to roll back the first-term successes.

The new House majority's planned effort to repeal the health care law shapes up as a noisy but futile political muscle flexing to placate tea party and other conservative complainers. With the Senate still in Democratic control, albeit more narrowly, and with President Obama's veto pen at the ready, repeal looks to be more a slogan than an achievable GOP goal over the next two years.

President Obama, in his new posture of reluctant humility, has said he will have the Republican congressional leaders, Speaker-to-be John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to the White House soon to discuss how they can work together after two years of knocking heads.

Notably, the president has also said he intends to have Ms. Pelosi and narrowly reelected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid along as well, assuming San Francisco's favorite liberal retains her House leadership. Her presence may well irritate the heck out of Messrs. Boehner and McConnell, but she will be no shrinking violet in the room in standing up for the administration's past liberal achievements and future proposals.

The prospects seem good for the more centrist Rep. Steny Hoyer, who despite past differences has worked well and loyally with Ms. Pelosi, to remain her top lieutenant as House minority whip over Rep. Jim Clyburn, who has indicated he will challenge Mr. Hoyer.

One bit of fallout from the 60-plus-seat House Republican pickup will be a diminution of Democratic conservatives' strength in the House and a consequent boosting of the liberal caucus, which is ready to put more backbone in Obama's third-year policies against attempted GOP rollbacks. And with Ms. Pelosi still in charge of the House Democrats, that much will be assured.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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