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House Leader Keeps Diverse Democrats on Common Course

Times Staff Writer

Nancy Pelosi is explaining the ways of Washington, how second-guessing is second nature there, when she offers an unusual observation. “You have to understand,” she says, “Washington is a secret-sauce town.”

Which is her way of disdaining those who profess to know the perfect ingredient -- the secret sauce -- for political success, if only the likes of Pelosi paid proper heed. Pull the troops from Iraq. No, let President Bush find a way out. Offer a fix for Social Security. No, simply torpedo the president’s plan.

Pelosi is the leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives, arguably one of the toughest jobs in politics. There is the hand-holding required of the party’s 200-plus members, enough to create a morass but not a majority on Capitol Hill. There is the impotence -- and daily indignity -- of being outnumbered by unyielding Republicans.

And of course there is all that free, often contradictory, advice.

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Pelosi, her smile unwavering, her energy unflagging, insists she knows the recipe for winning back the House in November. “It’s one good month in front of another,” she says in an interview between hometown appearances. “Beat Social Security. Make sure the world knows what’s happening ... ethically. Attract the candidates. Raise the money. Build the unity for our message.”

Her own sauciness shows in the way Pelosi dismisses all the carping and critics. “The fact there would be sniping among Democrats

While Republicans wrestle with a scandal-induced change in their congressional leadership -- with a vote set for early next month -- Democrats have wed their political fortunes to Pelosi, who has led the party in the House for the last three years. To many Democrats, that is a decidedly mixed blessing.

As the highest-ranking woman in congressional history, the 65-year-old Pelosi can boast a number of accomplishments. She has helped the party raise record sums of money, helped recruit a strong crop of candidates for November and presided over the most unified group of House Democrats -- as measured by party-line votes -- in many years.

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Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who opposed Pelosi’s rise to power, now praises her performance. “Nancy has worked hard to bring Democrats together,” said Frost, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who waged a short-lived campaign for the job Pelosi now holds.

But there are still plenty of Democrats who fret that having a liberal, a San Francisco liberal, as House leader reinforces Democrats’ wobbly image on defense and national security, boosting the odds against capturing the 15 seats the party needs to win control of the chamber.

A flashpoint came last month, when Pelosi seconded a proposal by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Her stance pitted Pelosi against others in the Democratic leadership -- who claimed to be blindsided by her announcement -- and shifted the debate on the war virtually overnight.

“Politically speaking, the president was bleeding profusely from an open wound,” said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan analyst and one of Washington’s top election handicappers. “The decision to effectively move the spotlight from a place that was horrendous for the president to a question on which there is no public consensus was the biggest political miscalculation I have seen in at least a decade.”

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Pelosi flatly rejected that assertion. “I think the attention is very much there with George Bush,” she said, adding that her support for Murtha was a personal endorsement and not a statement of the party’s position. “You don’t do that on a question of war,” she said. “That’s something that is a completely individual decision.”

Moreover, Pelosi went on, her action should have been no surprise; she opposed the war from the start, even breaking with Democratic leaders on the key vote in October 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

A month after that vote, Pelosi was elected the Democrats’ House leader, due in part to her antiwar position and frustration over the congressional gains Republicans made in the 2002 election. She promised a crisper message and a more confrontational approach to highlight Democrats’ differences with the GOP. Since then, she has largely delivered, emerging as one of Bush’s most unstinting critics.

The president was “oblivious,” she said, as the White House stumbled in response to Hurricane Katrina. “In denial. Dangerous.”

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More substantively, Congressional Quarterly reports that in 2005, Democrats were more unified than at any time in the past half century. The typically discordant lawmakers hung together for votes on energy policy, Social Security and the federal budget, 88% of the time in all, while Republicans were unified just under 90% of the time. Some of the credit goes to Bush and the GOP’s combative House leadership, which has galvanized Democrats in opposition. There is also greater homogeneity in the ranks of both parties, as the number of centrists has shrunk.

But Congress-watchers say much of the credit goes to Pelosi, who has served as a combination den mother -- perennially reaching out to members to hear their concerns -- and strict disciplinarian, cracking down on those deemed less than team players.

In a case that Pelosi allies happily publicized, she threatened last month to remove Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York from a prized seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee after he defected on a pair of high-profile votes. Towns declined to comment for this article.

“Some leaders tell members what they want to hear. She tells them what needs to be done,” said Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging Illinois representative whom Pelosi has put in charge of the party’s campaign effort. “Give me that kind of leader any day.”

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Though she represents one of the most liberal cities in America -- she has been picketed in San Francisco for being insufficiently antiwar -- Pelosi has worked to broaden Democrats’ national appeal by embracing issues such as deficit reduction and veterans affairs, bringing her House caucus along with her.

“She’s shown a recognition of the need for a party with a big tent and diversity,” said Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman and more moderate Democrat who was urged by Pelosi to run for chairman of the national party despite their differences on abortion. Roemer lost to former presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

None of that, however, has assuaged Pelosi’s critics, who say they cringe each time she appears on television -- particularly when the subject is national security.

The war in Iraq has deeply riven the party; it divided Democrats in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns and threatens to do so again this year. The split this time is among those in the party who believe that Democrats should act to end the war and those who prefer to attack Bush, in hopes that voters will take out their frustrations on Republicans.

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By embracing Murtha’s withdrawal plan, some argue, Pelosi put the party’s candidates on the spot. “Now every Democrat in a competitive House seat has to answer the question, ‘Do you agree or disagree with your party’s leadership that we should cut and run in Iraq?’ ” said one Democratic campaign strategist, who did not want to be identified to protect his livelihood. “And that makes the already sticky wicket of the war more like a Venus’ flytrap.”

Pelosi waved that assertion aside. “They can think that if they want,” she said, later observing that there is “always a group that you don’t go far enough with ... and there’s always some that will say ... ‘Well, why now?’ ”

Indeed, discontent among Democrats over their congressional leadership is hardly new. The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, an old-line liberal from Boston, is widely revered today among Democrats. But back in the 1980s he stayed out of many congressional districts and left campaign duties to Texan Jim Wright, then the No. 2 House leader, who was seen as more salable in swing areas.

It is a fact that Pelosi backers point out when others question her national standing.

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No one Democrat “fits perfectly in every single congressional district, like Cinderella’s slipper,” said Roemer. “That’s an old argument that doesn’t do anything to help Democrats win seats.”


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