FERGUSON, Mo. – Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care what you think of her.
The only woman to become speaker of the House – not once but twice – is plowing forward with her agenda, despite demands from her left flank to act more boldly and her right flank to move with caution.
It appears to be working. Pelosi is quick to point out she has never lost a major vote on the House floor. She has gotten unanimous or near-unanimous Democratic support this year on most major House legislation – although the measures are largely messaging vehicles because they stand little chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate.
Pelosi was hammered on the campaign trail last year for being a San Francisco liberal, but in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, she embraced the label as a way of showing her party’s left wing she is one of them, before asking them to move toward the center.
“I’m a progressive from San Francisco. I think I can have some credentials on the left, as a person who has represented a very liberal city,” Pelosi said last month in Ferguson.
“But you have to govern mainstream,” she added.
USA TODAY spent the day traveling with Pelosi in St. Louis and Ferguson as she joined Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., to promote policies that unite Democrats: expanding voting rights, job growth and cleaning up corruption in government. Even though the trip followed weeks of Democratic infighting and botched messaging, in Missouri, none of those issues came up.
Pelosi is leading her most diverse caucus yet.
Some liberals, such as freshmen Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., proudly embrace socialism, want sweeping action on climate change and call for a government-run health care system. Ocasio-Cortez, a social media star, said Democrats compromise too much and has called out party lawmakers who vote with Republicans.
Democrats in competitive districts run as far as they can from the socialist label. They want to focus on what they campaigned on: lowering health care costs, bolstering infrastructure and spurring jobs growth. They are willing to work with Republicans. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said that in divided government, “the key is actually moving the ball forward, which requires us working with both sides.”
Pelosi is trying to bridge those viewpoints. In a nod to each wing of the party, she said Democrats should fight for the “boldest common denominator.”
“While there are people who have a large number of Twitter followers, what’s important is that we have large numbers of votes on the floor of the House,” Pelosi said. Ocasio-Cortez has almost 4 million followers on Twitter.
When USA TODAY asked how more liberal members responded when she told them they needed legislation that could pass, she responded, “They’re fine."
“As I say to my own district, ‘You go out and elect 218 people, just like San Francisco, then we can talk,' " she said.
Democrats captured the House majority in November 2018 by winning seats in districts starkly different from deep-blue San Francisco. Voters there backed Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. In her reelection bid in 2018, Pelosi captured 87% of the vote. But more than two dozen Democratic House members represent districts that Trump won in 2016, some by double digits, including Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, whose district the president carried by 31%.
Pelosi, 79, is holding the speaker’s gavel for the second time. She’s the highest-ranking woman elected in politics. Her colleagues say being a mother of five and a grandmother of nine shows in how she interacts with people. She can be both “loving” and “tough as nails,” according to Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads Democrats’ campaign arm for the 2020 election. Bustos has experienced both sides, as a member of leadership who is from a Trump district.
During every encounter in Missouri, Pelosi tried to forge a personal connection with constituents and activists. She held the hand of an employee giving a tour of a children’s health center. She elicited laughs during a town hall including former prisoners when she teased their teacher, himself a former inmate, after he compared himself to Denzel Washington. She lingered long after the handshake in conversations with the former prisoners.
She has long had a reputation for toughness. In December, she won plaudits from her party for confronting Trump in the Oval Office over his demand for a wall along the southern border.
But personal relationships are the key for Pelosi in trying to hold together a caucus that is even more ideologically divided than it was during her tenure as speaker from 2007 to 2011.
Is the shifting Democratic Party "a problem for her, that she needs to manage? Yeah, it probably is," said Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University.
Beck said it's crucial that Pelosi doesn’t leave “some of these moderate Democrats, many of whom were replacing Republicans, kind of out to dry and very vulnerable to Republican attacks in the 2020 election."
Republicans’ strategy for targeting vulnerable congressional Democrats centers on linking them to the agenda of far-left liberals such as Ocasio-Cortez.
Many freshmen Democrats who flipped GOP seats in November ran far away from liberal priorities such as "Medicare for All," a national program that would guarantee health insurance for every American. Dozens vowed to oppose Pelosi for speaker after Republicans held her up as a symbol of liberal policies. Pelosi didn’t take it personally. “Just win, baby," she said in May 2018.
Pelosi told USA TODAY she has been able to keep her caucus together because she understands her members and their districts. Observers in both parties said she knows exactly what members want. That knowledge has allowed her to flatter, threaten and just simply wear them down until she has the support needed.
In March, as Democrats awaited the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, some in the party talked of impeaching Trump. Pelosi urged caution, telling USA TODAY that impeachment would be a “gift” to the president if Republicans weren’t on board. She dismissed demands for a stronger stance on impeachment: “They wanted to impeach the president since the day he got elected.”
After Mueller’s investigation wrapped up with a finding that there was no collusion with Russia, most Democrats have followed Pelosi and put impeachment talk aside.
Pelosi "is the most gifted strategic person I’ve ever met, when it comes to politics. If you’re in her crosshairs, she’s your most formidable opponent, and if she’s on your side and with you, she’s able to do magical things,” said Joe Crowley, the former Democratic Caucus chairman, who lost his seat in New York last year in a primary upset by Ocasio-Cortez.
When you walk into Pelosi’s office, you’ll find two products from her San Francisco district: bowls of Ghirardelli chocolate (dark, her favorite) and a stack of San Francisco Giants baseball bats. The bats lean against a dark brown cabinet where four TVs play C-Span feeds of the House and Senate floors, along with MSNBC and CNN.
Former New York Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat who has worked closely with Pelosi, likens the chocolate and bats to her leadership style.
“We can do this the sweet way, or we can do this the hard way. But we’re going to do this,” said Israel, who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm in 2012 and 2014.
When Pelosi arrived at the first stop in the St. Louis area, a tour of a children’s health center, Rep. Clay gave her some local dark mint chocolates.
“I like to do it the sweet way,” Clay said, laughing. “She will pressure you if you don’t agree with the direction that she wants to take our caucus.
“She can be very persistent and insistent. She just keeps hammering on her point,” he said.
Pelosi laughed off Israel’s chocolate and bats metaphor. “I’m a sports fan,” she said.
There are examples of the tactic, as recently as the end of last year. Dozens of candidates and incumbents said they would not support her for speaker. But she secured the speakership in January with only 15 defections.
In late 2018, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio briefly considered challenging Pelosi for speaker but opted against it. She was given the chairmanship of a new subcommittee focused on elections. By contrast, Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, a longtime Pelosi critic, pushed for new leadership and refused to vote for Pelosi. Later, when the former prosecutor lobbied to join the Judiciary Committee, she was blocked by Pelosi and her allies, according to two sources familiar with the incident.
Some Republicans acknowledged Pelosi's success in holding her caucus together.
But based on their own experience, they aren’t sure how long it will last. They suggested cracks are emerging that remind them of the tea party’s rise on their side – and the headaches the faction posed for Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. (Ohio’s Boehner retired early, in part over frustration dealing with the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. Wisconsin’s Ryan did not run for reelection in 2018.)
“It’s similar to what we, as Republicans, dealt with when we were in the majority. You have an ascendant left that is very angry, very blunt, frankly a little irresponsible in the things they say. And the base soaks it up,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, a GOP moderate who retired last year. A Democrat holds his former seat.
“I think it’s kind of like Groundhog Day, but now it’s a different color. It’s a blue groundhog,” Costello said.
Some grassroots liberals demand that Pelosi put proposals such as the Green New Deal, aimed at climate change, and Medicare for All up for a vote, even if they stand no chance of passing the GOP-led Senate and being signed into law by Trump.
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a group that helped launch Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional bid, called on Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to “embrace the grassroots energy that’s in the Democratic base right now” – or give up the post to someone who will.
Pelosi said there were no plans to bring up the Green New Deal because it was “a list of aspirations.” Instead, she pointed out that she created a select committee to address climate change, and she said other panels would work on the issue, as well. House Democrats introduced a more modest bill that would put the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement after President Trump withdrew.
The Rules and Budget Committee will hold hearings on Medicare for All, but Pelosi has made no commitment to bring it to the floor for a vote.
“While I’m very supportive of shoring up the Affordable Care Act right away, I simply don’t think that we get to our final conclusion without a Medicare for All bill,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Jayapal said she supports rejoining the Paris climate accord, but there was much more to be done to address an “urgent crisis.”
Jayapal said she wants to persuade members that more liberal policies can be popular in their districts, but “I don’t believe in shaming, for the most part.” She said polling by the Progressive Caucus shows many voters in districts that Trump won are receptive to Medicare for All and other left-leaning policies.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, expressed skepticism and said using “talking points” to sell a liberal agenda was not the answer to winning seats in moderate districts.
“I got an econ degree, and one of the truisms is that you can find data to support any theory you want. It depends how you ask the question,” Murphy said.
“Our members got elected in really tough seats, red to blue seats, seats that Trump won because they understood their constituents,” she said. “Let’s give them the respect they deserve to represent their communities the best way they know best how.”
The Florida Democrat said moderates are concerned about health care and climate, too, but they want to make sure the legislation has a chance of making it through the GOP Senate and onto the president’s desk.
“I think we can address these issues looking at the problem in smaller pieces,” Murphy said.
In Missouri, the day went smoothly. Back in Washington, Pelosi and Democratic leadership have not been so lucky. Internal divisions have grabbed headlines, even though House Democrats easily passed their signature priorities.
When Democrats cleared the first major piece of legislation in 25 years on background checks for firearms, 26 moderates voted with Republicans to amend the bill to require turning over undocumented immigrants to the government if they try to buy a gun. Pelosi and liberals scolded those who crossed party lines behind closed doors. Ocasio-Cortez told members she had alerted left-wing activists that 26 Democrats were responsible for the amendments’ passage, according to two aides in the room.
When asked about the incident, Pelosi said the GOP amendments, formally known as “motions to recommit” and designed to put members of the majority in uncomfortable positions, were simply “procedural” and “not anything that is worthy of our conversation.”
More than a week later, all Democrats voted to pass House Resolution 1, a bill focused on voting rights and congressional ethics. In the days before the vote, the party’s message on the legislation was overshadowed by a controversy over comments made by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who said Israel demands "allegiance" from U.S. lawmakers. Republicans and some Democrats said the remarks played to anti-Semitic tropes by questioning the loyalty of American Jews.
Jewish members wanted the House to immediately vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. Several liberal members pushed for a broader resolution condemning all forms of hate and said it was unfair to single out Omar. It took days before Democrats finally passed a broad anti-hate resolution. Omar’s name was not included. Some Jewish members were disappointed at what they felt was a watered-down measure. Other Democrats were frustrated the debate had dragged on so long.
“I wished she would have moved quickly,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Manley said he understood why it took so long: “Such a diverse caucus, you’ve got to take everybody’s opinions into account.”
Pelosi said she thought the resolution turned out as it should have, and listening to all members was a positive, despite the time it takes.
“I think we came out very strong,” she said.
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