Has Nancy Pelosi Been Marginalized in the Debt Debate?

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Alex Brandon / AP Photo

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gestures while discussing the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill Friday, July 8, 2011.

At Thursday’s White House meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner laid out in stark terms the awful economic repercussions of allowing the debt ceiling to lapse. Everyone in the room agreed that defaulting on U.S. debt would be disastrous and that something must be done. At that point, Nancy Pelosi asked: Why couldn’t the debt ceiling be decoupled from deficit reduction?

Her query, after so many weeks of reports and talks centered on deficit reduction tied to a debt ceiling deal, visibly surprised some leaders in the room, several Republican and Democratic sources say. Obama politely informed the House Minority Leader, those same sources say, that that train had left the station weeks ago.

To be fair, many Democrats would love to raise the debt ceiling with a clean vote, without conditions, but House test votes last month proved such a move to be impossible in the current climate. And Pelosi had already pledged herself earlier in Thursday’s meeting to passing a large deficit reduction package. So, why not pass the debt ceiling now, she reasoned, and give negotiators more time to hash out the bigger package? “Leader Pelosi and the House leadership have worked closely together to achieve consensus and unity of message in the caucus,” said her spokesman, Drew Hammill. “With respect to the ongoing negotiations, Leader Pelosi is committed to finding a balanced, bipartisan package that doesn’t cut Medicare and Social Security benefits.”

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But some Republican and Democratic sources point to Pelosi’s question in Thursday’s meeting as one that highlights how out of touch Pelosi has become on policy as she crisscrosses the country fundraising and recruiting candidates, working to regain the majority and her speakership. The President, these same sources suggested, could rely on House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer to deliver moderate Democrats to help pass the debt ceiling, thus circumventing Pelosi.”I think it’s clear she is not taken seriously by White House, Senate and Republican leadership,” said one Democratic member on the condition of anonymity. Pelosi’s staff, while confirming that she posed the question in Thursday’s meeting, scoffed at the idea she’s not deeply involved in policy. “Leader Pelosi knows how to walk and eat chocolate at the same time,” Hammill said.

To be sure, Pelosi is very much in the room. She met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden again for a previously scheduled White House visit Friday morning. In it, she discussed her concerns on the size and scope of the package. “[W]e had a clear understanding, as the President has met with all of the leaders, a clear understanding of what our terms of how we go forward, and some of this will come forward on Sunday evening,” Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill Friday afternoon. She, along with the other leaders including Hoyer, is expected back at the White House for further debt ceiling negotiations on Sunday. “But the questions that I have relate to the baseline, the length of time, the firewall, some of the technicalities of the discussion, so that we are not change (sic) the rules in the middle of the discussion.”

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Boehner will likely need Democratic votes to get a debt ceiling increase passed, which is why Pelosi last week demanded a seat at the negotiating table. She has drawn a line – and made it clear to the President – that she would vehemently oppose cuts to entitlement benefits. Of all the participants in negotiations, Pelosi has the most to lose if Boehner and Obama pass a sweeping grand bargain. Such a move would burnish Boehner’s credentials as someone who can get things done, while shoring up his Tea Party support by cutting trillions of dollars from the budget. His success would undercut her argument that America would be better served with Democrats running the House.

While both Hoyer and Pelosi can be pragmatic negotiators, Hoyer’s personal politics are closer to the middle than Pelosi’s. Hoyer, for example, was one of 81 Democrats who voted for the 2011 budget compromise between Obama and Boehner.  He has a long record of reaching across the aisle and good personal working relationships with both Boehner and House Minority Leader Eric Cantor. Still, he has thus far presented a united front with Pelosi in publicly insisting that cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits should be off the table. When he seemed to suggest otherwise in Thursday’s caucus meeting, he got an earful from Rep. Donna Edwards, according to Politico. “Mr. Hoyer and Leader Pelosi are working together to convey the views of House Democrats to the President and reach a balanced agreement that ensures America pays its bills and reduces the deficit,” Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant said when asked to comment for this story.

Much has been made about the rivalries in the GOP leadership and how the debt ceiling issue divides Republicans. It’s easy to forget that there are divisions on the Democratic side as well.

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