Nancy Pelosi is a grandmother who loves chocolate ice cream and long power walks around Washington. But standing in front of news cameras outside the Capitol with pursed lips and eyes hidden behind a pair of big, round, dark sunglasses, she looked every bit the political assassin she must have felt like.
The display of confidence was well placed, even though she's ultimately more likely to save Republicans from themselves. Before the news conference, with the clock ticking on potentially the second government shutdown in as many years, the San Francisco Democrat reached out to Republican House Speaker John Boehner to say she was ready to "extend the hand of friendship."
What she was really doing was offering Boehner, once again, votes from House Democrats in order to pass a crucial piece of legislation. Despite their consistent position in the House minority since the 2010 elections, Democrats have been relied on to pass almost every major bill as the battle in the Republican Party between the Tea Party and traditional pro-business interests have stymied Boehner's ability to find consensus in his own conference.
Next week, Democratic votes will probably be necessary to pass the "cromnibus," which sounds like the latest Michael Bay "Transformers" blockbuster but is actually Washington-speak for financing that would keep government funded. But if it were a Hollywood thriller, know that Pelosi, a daughter of Baltimore's old school Little Italy politics, would know how to steal the spotlight.
"If he has 218 votes, there’s no conversation," Pelosi said of the number of votes Boehner needs to pass a bill in the House. "If he doesn’t, we need to have leverage."
After several years in this role, Pelosi has developed a strategy to strengthen her party's negotiating power when the opportunity arises, this time for their lead budget negotiator, Representative Nita Lowey of New York. Pelosi spent some time earlier this week reminding her colleagues of the approach, which sounds simple in theory but is quite difficult in the reality of a Washington culture that rewards self-promotion. "It's a classic Pelosi strategy: Everybody shut the f**k up and maximize Nita Lowey’s leverage," a senior House Democratic aide said.
It's more or less worked, although not every Democrat is happy about it. Representative Raul Grijvala, an Arizona Democrat and one of the chamber's most liberal members, said he has little interest in helping Republicans pass a budget. "I haven’t seen any net return on helping the Republican leadership pass anything," Grijvala said in an interview. "We’re going to be back here again in September with these same issues." Asked if Pelosi should be pushing for bigger changes in the spending measure, he said, "I respect her tremendously and I think she’s done a good job. I just think we need to start drawing lines in the sand now rather than later."
Similarly, Boehner's reliance on Democratic votes has drawn the ire of the Republican base. Since becoming speaker, he's needed help from the minority party to pass appropriations bills, provide aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, approve the Violence Against Women Act, raise the debt ceiling and, last year, reopen government and end the 16-day partial government shutdown.
Pelosi dismissed a question on Friday about members who'd rather let Republicans twist in the wind, suggesting that Democrats had limited negotiating power. "If the risk is to shut down government, we’re just not going to be a party to that," she said. "If the bill is anything that we can support, we will, but we are not going to be a party to shutting down the government."
Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, said Pelosi has been careful not to overplay the party's hand. "When she has leverage, she uses it," Hahn said. "And assuring some of these crazy riders are not attached to this spending bill is a role I'm happy to play."
"Riders" are what Pelosi is taking aim at this time as she proffers Democratic votes. These so-called policy riders are measures Republicans regularly attempt to tack on to spending plans to, for example, keep money from Planned Parenthood or limit inspections of coal mines. In private negotiations, Democrats are combing through dozens of riders said to be aimed at Washington D.C.'s marijuana laws, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, and some social issues, including abortion. The temptation to add on to the cromnibus is great because it is becoming the ultimate legislative Christmas tree. It's the only major measure that may pass before they adjourn for the year so if you're not on it, you're out of chances.
"They know that in order to have a bill pass, they have to have all the votes," Pelosi told reporters on Friday. "If they want ours, we can’t support what they’re doing on the bill."