Just after holding a press conference on gasoline prices with Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi late last week, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., found himself in an adjacent holding room giving follow-up interviews. Suddenly, the room filled with Republican staff members crowding in for the next press event with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “We need the room,” a staffer barked. Shaking his head, Cummings and the reporters retreated to a hallway.
There is no more fitting metaphor than that for Pelosi and the House Democrats, who have gone from sitting in the catbird seat a year ago helping President Obama push through health care reform and other major legislation, to finding themselves very much on the sidelines of the debt ceiling and deficit reduction negotiations.
“They are irrelevant,” Claremont-McKenna College Political Science professor Jack Pitney said flatly, when asked about the impact of House Democrats on the budget and deficit talks. “They can’t [have an impact]. The only way to have an impact is to regain the majority. President Obama and to a much lesser extent the Senate majority determine what the Democratic position is. The minority in the House is merely a spectator.”
That hasn’t prevented three key Democrats and others from forming an attack plan to regain power. Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee have set their sights on Paul Ryan's controversial Medicare plan which converts Medicare to a government-subsidized voucher system. Hoyer also takes Ryan to task for adding tax cuts to the package. Yet his critique was mild compared to the Democratic blast emails and statements that come out daily flogging the Ryan plan as bad for seniors and the poor.
Pelosi traveled to Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state, recently to appear with Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, on her continuing effort to portray Ryan’s plan as an assault on federal health care coverage for seniors. While some local media covered the event as scripted, most of the state-wide news outlets focused instead on the announced retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and the possibility Baldwin will run for that seat.
Even with their spirits buoyed by Democrat Kathy Hochul’s upset victory last Tuesday in a special House election, House Democrats are realists when it comes to their lack of power and influence on major fiscal issues.
Cummings, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, acknowledged that passing Democratic priorities in a Republican House is “going to be difficult. He said the New York congressional election should send a “very, very, very, very powerful message” to Republicans. “Whether they decide to listen, well that’s another thing.”
The Democratic House victory in a rock-ribbed Republican district in upstate New York stemmed in part from voter rejection of a House-passed Republican plan to overhaul Medicare. The outcome emboldened many Democrats and prompted some independent political analysts to predict a more competitive race next year for control of the House.
However, John Boehner and other House GOP leaders are dismissive of this assumption, and are showing the Democrats little deference in the aftermath of the special election. “The only plan Democrats have is to do nothing, which means Medicare will run out of money and hurt seniors,” Boehner said at his news conference in response to a question from The Fiscal Times.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee which poured millions into the special election victory in New York a week ago Tuesday, said it would be a mistake to overstate the result.
“On [that] Monday night we needed 25 seats to take the House back, on Wednesday morning [following the election] we needed 24 seats to take the House back,” Israel said. “That’s when true change will come. Being in the minority is not fun.”
What Would Clinton Do?
House Democrats are still struggling to find their footing in the wake of losing the House last fall, much as former President Clinton did in 1995, after Republicans took over the House. Back then, Clinton was forced to declare at a news conference that he was “relevant” to the political process.
It’s all about the shock of losing, according to those who have been there before. Douglas Sosnik, who was Clinton’s political director, told The New York Times right after the 2010 mid-term elections that it took Clinton’s White House six months to recover from the shock. Democrats are just hitting that point, and they have seemingly been handed a plum in the form of Ryan’s Medicare and budget plan. Even some Republicans are reportedly wondering why they did it.
That is helping the Democrats regain their equilibrium, but the fact remains that they don’t have a lot of power.
“The media puts its finger to the wind, and the media, for better or worse, is acutely aware of who is able to operate at the level of power,” said National Public Radio media correspondent David Folkenflik. “That there may be valid voices at times ignored or excluded is not surprising to me.”
Last Year's Victory, This Year's Snooze
Just a year ago Pelosi reigned as a hard-charging House speaker who was credited with steering Obama’s health care reform plan to passage when many others had given up. She called a now-famous meeting in the ornate speaker’s office and declared she was not giving up, shortly after Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts that cost Senate Democrats a 60-vote super-majority and was widely interpreted as a fatal blow to the health care bill. Pelosi took it as a signal to work harder and she succeeded.
When Pelosi held a press conference in March to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the health care law, none of the House Democratic heavy hitters including Hoyer were present for the event.
Ironically, it was the Democrats’ staunch defense of health care reform that cost them the House majority and drove Pelosi from power. Now, the tables appear to have turned again, and the Republicans unpopular stand on Medicare reform has emboldened the Democrats. But meanwhile, Pelosi languishes in the minority, operating with vastly diminished power.
When Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cut a deal in April to avoid a government shutdown, Pelosi was not in the room or even in the city. She was giving a speech near Boston. She has delegated many of the leadership duties to others, though she continues to raise money for the party and to put out a plethora of press releases daily.
Pelosi, the scion of a Baltimore political family and the mother of five and the grandmother of seven, outworked and outmaneuvered her rivals to rise to the top of the House Democratic hierarchy and served as the first female speaker from 2007 to 2011.
In discussing the political fight over the budget deficit and proposals for controlling the cost of Medicare and other costly entitlements, Pelosi says she would rather “have the problem [of the deficit] solved than have the debate.” But, she said, she is prepared to “take this issue to the American people.” That means, slugging it out in the 2012 elections.