- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t lose her temper — but she unleashed a bit of sarcasm when someone suggested, yet again, that she’s a thorn in President Barack Obama’s side.

“Let me get this straight,” the California Democrat said to a group of liberal bloggers last week. They had asked her about unattributed reports that the White House thought the $787 billion stimulus bill might have won a few more votes from House Republicans if Mrs. Pelosi had not moved it so quickly.

“It couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she said dismissively, noting that Mr. Obama had requested the bill by Presidents Day.

Mrs. Pelosi might have been slightly less irritated if Republicans weren’t constantly making the opposite charge: that she is the driving force behind Mr. Obama’s bid to ram a liberal and costly agenda into law over Republican protests.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is the third conspirator, these Republicans say. Lawmakers “sound the alarm over the Obama-Pelosi-Reid budget proposal,” said a typical recent Republican press release.

Such is life for Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid these days as they adapt to new roles that increase their ability to enact legislation while reducing their powers to direct the Democratic Party.

For two years, as the party’s highest-ranking elected officials, they used their congressional majorities to thwart key elements of President George W. Bush’s agenda. Now, with Mr. Obama the Democrats’ unquestioned leader, Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi play less visible and more intermediary parts.

They will oversee Congress’ efforts to fill in the details of his legislative blueprint, working to keep Democrats on board and angling for Republican votes where possible. It’s a balancing act: trying to put in place the new president’s priorities while protecting the legislative branch’s right to modify or reject executive branch initiatives.

Standing in the middle, they are easy targets for critics. Mrs. Pelosi saw that when people simultaneously accused her of being too friendly and too combative with Obama.

Not since 1994 have Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House. So there’s “a period of adjustment,” said Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, a close ally of Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Reid’s.

On balance, he said, the White House and congressional leaders have good relationships, but “you already see sometimes where everyone’s not in agreement,” Mr. Casey said. “That’s going to happen.”

The most pronounced differences so far involve Iraq and congressional earmarks, the targeted projects that lawmakers put into spending bills.

When Mr. Obama said 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops might remain in Iraq after most are withdrawn, Mrs. Pelosi said 50,000 seemed unjustified. Mr. Reid called it “a little higher number than I had anticipated.” The next day, he called Mr. Obama’s plan “sound and measured.”

Earmarks have triggered a feistier discussion. Many lawmakers love steering federally funded jobs or water-treatment plants to their districts — projects to point to at election time.

Mr. Obama criticized earmarks during his campaign (although he embraced them as a senator) and the White House recently said it will set new rules limiting their use. Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi were not pleased, but the sharpest response came from another team member, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

“I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do,” he told reporters.

The Obama administration showed signs of easing off, suggesting the public disagreements involving Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders are relatively minor and easily resolved. Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi won’t dictate Iraq troop deployments, Mr. Obama won’t force lawmakers to give up cherished earmarks, and Republicans will have trouble dividing Democrats, at least for now, several White House and congressional officials said.

Mrs. Pelosi’s balancing act is trickier than Mr. Reid’s. She owes her leadership post to House liberals, who would have Mr. Obama move faster to wind down the Iraq war, raise taxes on the wealthy and move the country away from Mr. Bush’s policies in other ways.

Mr. Reid, who must pick up a few Republican senators’ votes to overcome filibusters on most bills, has a ready excuse for moving toward the center, where Mr. Obama tends to be. Mrs. Pelosi, meanwhile, is expected to uphold liberal ideals, and she often does.

For instance, she embraced the notion of investigating Bush administration officials’ roles in warrantless wiretaps and other practices. Mr. Obama largely shrugged off the idea.

Those who see great meaning in such differences, however, are overreaching, say officials familiar with the two. The notion of friction between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi has taken hold, they say, because it’s mutually convenient to several groups.

It lets the White House and Senate Democrats appear more moderate than the House Democratic leadership, generally seen as to the left of the American electorate. Conservatives like it because it paints Mrs. Pelosi, a favorite target, as a threat to reasonable government. Mrs. Pelosi doesn’t mind it too much, her confidants say, because it reassures her important liberal supporters that she has not abandoned them.

A better guide, congressional insiders say, are the public and private comments Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi make about each other, which are overwhelmingly favorable. Mrs. Pelosi often gushes about Mr. Obama, House members say, and she urged them to read his inaugural address for inspiration.

At a House Democrats’ retreat in Virginia, Mr. Obama called Mrs. Pelosi “our rock who’s proven to be an extraordinary leader for the American people.”

Those relationships will be tested soon as the president pushes Congress to overhaul health care, energy and education. Countless details must be worked out between the administration and congressional Democrats, with Republican lawmakers — especially in the Senate — ready to derail bills if they don’t get a few concessions.

Pushing legislation in a more liberal direction will be House committee chairmen such as Reps. Henry A. Waxman and George Miller. Both are California Democrats, allies of Mrs. Pelosi’s and major players in energy, health care and education.

In the Senate, Mr. Reid constantly will be looking for compromises that can attract at least three Republican votes, as he did on the stimulus bill. Mr. Obama’s agenda is huge, he told reporters, but it’s justified.

“How can we afford to do nothing on health care?” Mr. Reid asked. “We’ve got education problems, we’ve got the energy issues to work at.”

“So, no,” Mr. Reid said, “I don’t think he’s asking us to do too much.”

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