Nancy Pelosi Wants a Little Respect (But That’s Not All She Wants)

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill July 7, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The protagonists in the debt-limit dealing are obviously President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, the golfing buddies and party leaders. The Senate’s 60-vote threshold for legislation—and the potential for random windbags to block a deal and crash the global economy—means that Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell get attention as well.

But don’t forget House Minority Nancy Pelosi. Boehner can’t pass a deal without Democratic votes; some members of his caucus, including a certain crazy-eyed presidential candidate, have vowed to oppose any deal to raise the debt ceiling. (Which is like refusing to pay a credit-card bill regardless of the terms, but that’s a story for another day.) Pelosi has been rolled in past deals, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be rolled again.

So what does Pelosi want?

In general, she wants what liberal Democrats usually want. She wants the rich to pay more taxes. She wants to block drastic rollbacks of government services for the poor and middle class. She wants cuts to spending to be as modest as possible, and cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to be nonexistent. And she would like Americans to know that Republicans are holding the nation’s full faith and credit hostage, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund managers and oil companies, and fighting for the owners of private jets and yachts, all of which happens to be true.

Pelosi also has a more personal goal: She wants to be Speaker again. And she thinks that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s unpopular plan to squeeze Medicare has provided the Democrats with a clear path back to the majority, a chance to run as the defenders of Medicare against the Republican marauders. So she really doesn’t want any bipartisan bargain, grand or otherwise, to include Medicare cuts that can inoculate Republicans from this line of attack next fall.

There’s one other thing Pelosi wants. During last December’s lame-duck session, Vice President Biden forged a deal with McConnell to extend the Bush tax cuts, infuriating House Democrats who hadn’t even given up the majority yet. Then in April, Obama reached a deal with Boehner to trim spending, a deal that required House Democratic votes even though it lacked House Democratic input. And on Wednesday, the White House started leaking about a possible mega-deal that would include Medicare and Social Security, without giving Pelosi the courtesy of a heads-up.

It would be interesting to know what Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said to Obama when they marched over to the White House today, but it was probably some version of: Hey! Don’t forget about us! There was also a bit of: You can’t do this without us!

One problem for Pelosi and the House Democrats is that it’s hard to picture them defying Obama, blocking a debt-ceiling deal and plunging the global economy into chaos. It’s quite easy to picture congressional Republicans doing that; at times they seem anxious to do that. That’s why Republicans have controlled these negotiations; they’re making credible threats. And that’s why Pelosi keeps getting rolled.

In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the White House frequently pressured Pelosi to defer to the Senate. During the debate over the stimulus, she was furious when tens of billions of dollars for school construction and other Democratic priorities got chopped out to appease three Senate Republicans. But she wanted a stimulus, she wanted Obama to succeed, and Reid needed 60 votes. During the debate over health care, she wasn’t thrilled about concessions she had to make on abortion and the public option. But again, she was thrilled about universal coverage, she supported Obama, and she knew how to count votes.

But reining in federal spending, unlike stimulating the economy or extending health care to all Americans, is not a goal that Pelosi shares. And her interests are no longer as aligned with Obama’s interests as they once were; going into 2012, he wants to remind the country that he’s a reasonable man who can work across the aisle, while she wants to tell the country that Republicans are right-wing extremists who can’t work with anyone.

In the end, she’ll probably get rolled anyway. But with the nation’s full faith and credit at stake, Obama better make sure he can get away with it first.