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Nancy vs. Nancy

Two Democrats symbolize their party's fate in the House: new Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas moderate, and California's Nancy Pelosi, the presumed new Speaker.  By John Mercurio,
/ Source: National Journal

Call it the tale of two Nancys. One, Nancy Pelosi, is a San Francisco liberal who rode a fervent anti-Bush wave this week to achieve her dream of capturing the House and, presumably, the Speaker's gavel. The other, Nancy Boyda, is a moderate Democrat who this week captured the same rural House district in Kansas that handed President Bush a 20-point victory two years ago.

Pelosi and Boyda will have to work together in the new Democratic-led House, their agendas both confluent and conflicting. Indeed, it's freshman Democrats like Boyda, and Pelosi's response to them, that will largely determine whether their party's reign on Capitol Hill endures.

Boyda -- a former Republican who ousted five-term Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., in a low-budget rematch of a 2004 race he won by 15 points -- will join the biggest caucus of Blue Dog Democrats ever to serve in the House, most of whom have never served in the majority. Many of them, including Boyda, are backing Pelosi's leadership bid. But they do so at their own risk: With Republicans already gearing up to take back the House in two years, it's Democrats like Boyda who sit atop their target list. (A conservative Topeka talk-show devoted most of its air time Wednesday to speculating about possible Boyda challengers).

This is one of the top challenges Pelosi and other Democratic leaders face as they juggle a call for bipartisanship with voters' clear mandate to repudiate the Bush/Republican agenda.

In an interview, Boyda said they understand that. "Their message to me has been that we intend to work in a bipartisan way, and I intend to hold their feet to the fire on that," said Boyda, who received congratulatory calls Wednesday from surprised Democrats like Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is running for majority leader. "Clearly, they understand the politics of a conservative rural area and they know I'm going to work hard to represent what's best for this district."

"We're going to agree on some things, we're not going to agree on others," she added. "Oh well, you know, that's just the reality."

Rep.-elect Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., knows how she feels. McNerney unseated Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., on Tuesday in a rural district Bush carried by 9 points in 2004. (Like Boyda vs. Ryun, this was also a rematch; Pombo beat McNerney in '04 by 22 points).

"I have a certain degree of independence, because I got here on my own," said McNerney, who received a small amount of support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in late October. "I'll be able to vote in the direction that will benefit my district. I think that's important."

Still, he said, he'll support Pelosi for Speaker. "I think she's a practical person. I'm just like Nancy Pelosi. I want to get things done and I don't want to let labels get in the way of that."

And after the leadership vote? "We'll see," he said. "I think the Democratic agenda is good, but maybe not aggressive enough." In the past, Blue Dogs have strayed when necessary to back GOP-sponsored bills. With Republicans no longer in charge, the question becomes, will these conservative Democrats take the lead and advance right-of-center issues in order to put them at odds with their caucus?

Former Rep. Jim Slattery, a Kansas Democrat who compiled a moderate-to-conservative voting record when he served in Congress from 1983 through 1995, said freshmen should follow the lead of other Blue Dogs like Reps. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

"A bunch of them have already figured it out," Slattery said of his Blue Dog successors. "So many of these rural districts are culturally conservative, but they're economically populist. These new members have taken culturally conservative positions, on choice, flags, guns, gay marriage, coupled with a strong message on economic populism. That's where the future of the Dem Party is, in these conservative Midwestern and southern districts, and there's a great opportunity for moderate Democrats in these regions of the country."

Moore said his constituents support his belief that Washington works better when there's a check and balance. "That's what I would tell Nancy and anyone else, we have a responsibility to represent our people and do what's right. When our leadership's right, we go along with our leadership. When they're not, we don't. And they've been very respectful. If the president's right, I'll support him. But if the president's wrong, I'll tell him that and tell him a better way to do it."

Meanwhile, Pelosi faces potentially competing demands from lefty committee chairs -- folks like Reps. David Obey, D-Wis., Barney Frank, D-Mass., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., -- whose 12 years of pent-up, minority-fueled rage may be hard to rein in. And then there are the liberal bloggers, like MyDD's Matt Stoller, who this week asked, "Which Democrats believe in date rape bipartisanship and which ones believe in trying to work together, and failing that, actually work to govern?"

For her part, Boyda said she's not too worried about re-election -- yet.

"I don't have a passive bone in my body," she said. "If I were just part of some wave and didn't try to offer something, they'd kick me out in two years, for sure. But call me back in three months, and I'll tell you what I have done. I think you'll be surprised."