WASHINGTON – When Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first Democratic House speaker in 12 years, she promised to reach across the aisle to Republicans, to be “speaker of the House – the entire House.” In tribute to that spirit, she dressed in purple – blending the red and blue that are symbols of partisan division.
But she did not look like a speaker of the whole House this week, as the financial industry bailout she helped negotiate was unexpectedly defeated. Republicans deserted in droves, Democrats were split, and Pelosi ended the floor debate prior to the vote with a passionate critique of Republican economic policies.
The Wall Street meltdown is the biggest issue to face Congress in decades, and it posed a daunting test of Pelosi’s leadership abilities: Hardly anyone in either party wanted to vote for the bill to spend $700 billion to shore up ailing financial firms, but most everybody worried about the economic and political consequences of failing to act.
The bill’s narrow defeat was in part a tribute to political forces far beyond Pelosi’s control: The deep-seated mistrust between the parties has made it increasingly difficult for the House to address major national problems that cry out for bipartisan solutions.
Still, Pelosi’s handling of the issue provided a window onto her leadership style – revealing the limits of her ability to win the trust of Republicans, to lean on her own rank and file, and to dispel her reputation as a polarizing figure.
Her closing speech was an assault on Bush-era economic policies that Pelosi said fueled the current financial woes. Some Republican leaders said Tuesday that her tone had cost them votes and contributed to the bill’s defeat.
In truth, there was little in the San Francisco Democrat’s speech that she had not said before. Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman, said she intended it as a last-ditch effort to increase support from balky liberal Democrats.
Still, some congressional analysts said that Pelosi’s onslaught may have been ill-timed and reinforced Republicans’ view of her as too partisan.
“It was very provocative,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has worked as a Senate staffer. “When the issue is still in doubt, you don’t poke a stick in the eye of the opposition.”
After the bailout plan failed, Pelosi blamed Republicans for not living up to an agreement – designed to give bipartisan political cover to incumbents – that each party would deliver half of its members in support of the bill. In the end, 60 percent of Democrats voted for it; only 33 percent of House Republicans did the same.
Congressional leaders usually will not bring legislation to the floor unless they are sure it will pass – especially when the stakes are so high.
Some critics now are asking whether Pelosi had faulty vote-counting intelligence. GOP leaders who were urging the rank and file to support the bailout plan said they told Democrats in advance that they did not have a lock on their votes, but did not ask them to delay the debate. Democrats believed the measure would pass.
Others have questioned how committed Pelosi was to passing the bill because, once it became clear that it was failing, she made only limited efforts to change minds. She asked members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a bastion of opposition to the deal, to change their votes – but did not deploy the kind of hardball tactics leaders often use to win close contests.
What’s more, she did not resort to the controversial – but often effective – strategy of extending the time for voting beyond the official 15-minute limit. She kept the vote open a bit longer, but nowhere near the three-hour tally that Republicans held in 2003 to pass a contentious Medicare bill.
Stacey Farnen Bernards, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he and Pelosi did not press harder because they viewed the issue as a “vote of conscience,” not a matter of party discipline.
It may be a politically effective strategy if, in the end, the bill changes more to Democrats’ liking. And it may have made it easier for Democrats, in these closing weeks of the 2008 campaign, to argue that Republicans are responsible for the nation’s economic problems.
Said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, “Turmoil and uncertainty benefits the Democrats.”