Three times this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent letters to her Democratic colleagues on the matter of Syria. Her mission: gathering political intelligence, not counting votes -- yet.
It’s a deliberate, disciplined approach to a contentious vote that has become a hallmark of the San Francisco Democrat’s leadership style. Pelosi, 73, is assessing who can be persuaded and what might move them toward approving President Barack Obama’s plan for a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons near Damascus that killed 1,400 people, including 400 children.
“She’s not going to ram this through,” said New York Representative Steve Israel. “The next several days will be about developing consensus and inviting recommendations to improve the language so that members can vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” said Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. On Sept. 3 alone, he called about 30 of his colleagues facing competitive re-elections or who hold strong antiwar stances.
The deliberation over a resolution authorizing military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has thrust Pelosi into a familiar mission, to defy the odds and deliver a vital bloc of votes. As speaker in 2009, she managed in two years to pass the health-care law and a carbon-trading climate bill, both by votes of 219-212.
Her task today is more complex, as she must coordinate her effort with House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Boehner and Pelosi pledged their support for a Syrian strike after a Sept. 3 briefing at the White House. Their failure to pass a resolution reflecting that view would risk diminishing Obama’s global standing and, according to the White House, future attacks inside Syria and on U.S. allies such as Israel.
In addition, Pelosi must find a way to pry dozens of her Democratic colleagues away from their antiwar instincts. She could start with her own leadership: among those withholding support is Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest ranking black House member.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, also is struggling with the issue after receiving briefings from the White House and spending most of Sept. 4 consulting with other lawmakers before the start of the Jewish Rosh Hashanah holiday.
“I’m convinced the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons and, as much as I need to consider the scope and duration of any attack, I have many questions about its efficacy,” Schakowsky said in an e-mail.
To get Schakowsky and Clyburn answers to their concerns, Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Israel are helping facilitate daily briefings for House members, including another classified session on Sept. 9, when lawmakers return from congressional recess.
It’s a pattern of behavior familiar to former Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who served in the House from 1981 until his retirement this year.
Pelosi’s strengths are in her willingness to delegate to members with expertise on particular issues, as well as her knowledge of the political and personal issues members are dealing with each day, said Frank, the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Frank’s chairmanship put him at the center of two of the biggest issues Pelosi confronted during her time as speaker: the $700 billion bailout of the financial system and the revision of banking regulations that followed.
Frank said the confidence Pelosi placed in him as lead negotiator on both, as well as a working relationship the two had from years past, prompted him to keep her informed every step of the way during the process.
“She always knew what I was doing and I always knew what my limits were,” Frank said in a telephone interview. “And when I wasn’t sure on an issue, I’d go to her.”
As Frank moved into the final stages of the legislative process, he showed Pelosi his preferred list of members to serve on the conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Pelosi was quick to offer fixes, asking him to put more women and freshmen on the committee, and, perhaps most importantly, tap members from other committees that would be supportive of most, if not all, of the bill’s many parts.
The recommendations, which Frank followed, paid off, as he had little trouble keeping his negotiating team together. “She went over each piece of it to make sure we had a majority at all times,” Frank said. “She saved me. I hadn’t calculated it like that.”
Frank said that while Pelosi can be forceful in her efforts, he never saw her threaten her members, either through removing them from committees or otherwise. Her strategy of identifying problematic votes or issues for members early quelled the need for ultimatums or special deals.
“You don’t go to members with a quid pro quo,” Frank said. “If you’re at the point where you have to do that, it’s too late.”
Former Representative Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat, was in his first and only House term when his equivocating over the carbon-trading, climate change bill earned him a face-to-face meeting with then-Speaker Pelosi.
He said he was struck as Pelosi recalled a previous conversation they’d had together, the unemployment rate in his rural district, and his Catholic faith.
“She talked to me as an individual and not just another number on the vote count,” said Perriello, who voted for the bill and eventually lost his seat in the limited-government, Tea Party wave in 2010. “She’s more like an old-school retail politician engaging you rather than trying to intimidate you.”
At an event in San Francisco on Sept. 4, Pelosi said the Syrian resolution “isn’t anything you whip,” referring to pressure tactics that are used to push through some legislation. “I’ve been asking them for their suggestions” and “trying to impress on the White House how important it is for consultation,” she said.
Among the main concerns Democrats have expressed, she said, is resistance to an open-ended military commitment. In a Sept. 4 letter, Pelosi told lawmakers other suggestions focused on adding language to “prevent boots on the ground, to tie authorization more closely to the use of chemical weapons.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 4 cleared a resolution on a bipartisan 10-7 vote to use force in a “limited and specified manner against legitimate military targets” during a 60-day period, with a possible 30-day extension. The resolution doesn’t authorize the use of ground troops in combat roles. The full Senate will vote next week.
The House caucus dynamics will change as a final vote nears and leaders will have to “freeze the design,” as Pelosi calls it, said Brendan Daly, a former aide. “Then she will listen to the members, individually, in small groups and big groups and try to address their concerns,” he said in an e-mail.
In her third letter issued yesterday, Pelosi said the Senate measure “addresses some of the concerns” of her caucus, yet she is aware of the limitations she could face in a vote that involves a military strike with unpredictable results.
“Some people will never be for anything, and I totally respect that,” Pelosi said Sept. 4 in San Francisco.