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Would Pelosi be able to lead a majority?

About a dozen centrist-conservative Democrats could hold the balance of power in a House led by Nancy Pelosi. In fact, even in the GOP-controlled House, on some votes these Democrats already hold the balance of power.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would be speaker of the House if the Democrats win at least 218 seats in November. Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
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With expectations of success in the Nov. 7 congressional elections building among Democrats, let’s consider the size and composition of a House Democratic majority -- and what kind of leverage that majority would have.

If Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi gets at least 218 seats to win a majority, a small but decisive number of her members would be centrist and conservative Democrats such as Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois, Rep. John Salazar of Colorado, and Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia.

Last week Bean, Salazar, and Marshall — all locked in tough races -- reminded Pelosi with their votes for the Republican-sponsored tax cut that they side with President Bush and the Republicans on some big issues.

Only 15 Democrats voted for the $70 billion bill, which continues the current tax rates on capital gains and dividends, while 182 Democrats voted against the measure.

"Another windfall for the wealthy while everybody else gets to work for a living," jeered Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, denouncing the tax breaks which his fellow Democrats Bean, Salazar, and Marshall were about to vote for.

Bean and about a dozen other centrist-conservative Democrats could hold the balance of power in a Pelosi-led House.

In fact, even in the GOP-controlled House, on some votes these Democrats already hold the balance of power.

In addition to the tax bill, centrist Democrats have voted for:

  • A bill implementing the Bush administration’s CAFTA free-trade agreement with Central American nations, which passed last year 217-215. Fifteen Democratic "yes" votes supplied the margin of victory.
  • The GOP-sponsored Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act, which the House OK’d two weeks ago by a vote of 217 to 213. Eight Democrats supplied the winning margin. Most House Democrats, 192 of them, voted against the bill. Emanuel called it “the incredible shrinking bill. With each passing day, it has become weaker and smaller. If we were going to vote on it tomorrow, it probably would be a blank page.”
  • A bill to make it more difficult for debt-laden consumers to declare bankruptcy, which the House passed last year.

On each of these votes, Pelosi, Emanuel and most House Democrats voted in opposition to maverick conservative-centrist Democrats. Despite their ideological differences with the conservative-centrists, Pelosi and Emanuel have thrown their fundraising weight behind them.

Liberal veterans would be chairmen
If Democrats win the majority, the chairmen of powerful House committees will be veteran liberals such as Rep. Henry Waxman of California, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, who hold “safe” seats far different in character from Bean’s Republican-leaning district in Illinois or Salazar’s GOP turf in rural Colorado.

“It’s very possible Democrats could get the majority and be even more fractured” than they are now, said Democratic strategist David Sirota.

"Many of the potential chairmen — Waxman, Obey, Conyers — have been waiting around a long time," he said.

Waxman would be chairman of the investigative panel, the Government Reform Committee, while Obey would likely head the Appropriations Committee and Conyers the Judiciary Committee. "They probably have a good idea of what they want to do. And they also happen to be the more progressive members. The problem is Pelosi has younger members who are more corporate-conservative. So potentially you have a situation where the (Democrats’) House caucus is paralyzed.”

Sirota, a former aide to left-leaning Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is the author of the hard-hitting new book, Hostile Takeover, which denounces CAFTA, the bankruptcy bill, Republican tax cuts, and centrist Democrats’ ties to business interests.

Sirota has advice for would-be Speaker Pelosi on how to manage the split between her and the Bean-Salazar-Marshall Democrats.

Create ideological discipline
He argues that Pelosi needs to “try to create some ideological discipline now” — before the election. “If they get into the majority, I don’t want to look at a timeline and see a two-year (majority) blip for the Democrats and then they just blow it” and Republicans win the 2008 elections and dominate the House for the next several years.

“When the party thinks about how to position itself, the fundamental challenge for the party is to define itself on orthodoxies that cut across regions,” he said. “The party’s orthodoxies, at least in the public’s mind, are the issues that are most divisive: choice (abortion rights), guns, same-sex marriage, and the social issues.”

Fortunately for Pelosi, if she becomes speaker, the House rules make it difficult for the minority party to put issues onto the agenda and force votes on them. Since Pelosi would control the agenda, she could prevent votes on issues that divide Democrats.

“Where it would get tough is the stuff where you really are trying to punch the president in the nose, like the Feingold censure resolution. But here’s the beauty: all that stuff — the subpoenas, the hearings — happens at the committee level. So in some ways the margins don’t matter as much…. Henry Waxman doesn’t [care] about how Jim Marshall is going to vote, because Waxman can hold a giant hearing and issue subpoenas.”

He added, “Where you’re going to run into trouble is on issues where they need the whole (Democratic) caucus,” on trade agreements, for instance. “What are they going to do when Bush signs a free trade agreement with Vietnam?” If Democratic leaders bring it up for a vote, “they definitely could lose 20 or 30 of their own members.”

But, said Sirota, Pelosi “could find ways to wedge the Republicans,” such as scheduling votes on stem-cell research funding and other issues that pit Republicans against each another.

Democratic Whip sees 'consensus'
When asked about the roll-call votes that show the divide between the leadership and the members such as Bean, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said, “Our party has been the most unified it has been since 1950, according to Congressional Quarterly. The numbers you mention are relatively small numbers — eight members, out of a party of 202 people, you’re not losing much of your party.”

But Hoyer, who would be the majority leader in a Pelosi House, added, “Your question posits that we may have a 10- or 20-vote margin and, assuming we get no Republican votes, will we be able to pass policies? The answer, I think, is yes.” He says he and Pelosi will “create consensus.”

Hoyer also said, even if Democrats score the success they hope for in November, “We will not be governing, no matter what happens. I expect us to take the Senate and the House, but the president is still going to be a Republican.”