- Associated Press - Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hers was the face on the grainy negative TV ads that helped defeat scores of Democrats. His agenda, re-election chances and legacy are on the line.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, chosen after a messy family feud among Democrats to remain as their leader in the next Congress, and President Obama share a keen interest in repairing their injured party after staggering election losses this month.

But Mrs. Pelosi’s mandate is diverging from the president’s at a critical time, with potentially damaging consequences for Mr. Obama’s ability to cut deals with congressional Republicans.

Their partnership is strained after elections in which Mrs. Pelosi and many other Democrats feel the White House failed them by muddling the party’s message and being too slow to provide cover for incumbents who cast tough votes for Mr. Obama’s marquee initiatives.

Mrs. Pelosi will lead Democrats “in pulling on the president’s shirttails to make sure that he doesn’t move from center right to far right,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat and co-chairwoman of the liberal Progressive Caucus in the House. “We think if he’d done less compromising in the last two years, there’s a good chance we’d have had a jobs bill that would have created real jobs, and then we wouldn’t even be worrying about having lost elections.”

Behind Democrats’ decision to keep Mrs. Pelosi as their leader after the devastating losses lies intense concern among liberals who dominate the party’s ranks on Capitol Hill: They fear Mr. Obama will go too far in accommodating the GOP in the era of divided government, and they see Mrs. Pelosi as a counterweight.

She’s played that role before. When Democrats panicked after losing their Senate supermajority last winter, Mrs. Pelosi rebuffed feelers by Rahm Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff at the time, and others to settle for a smaller health care bill. She derided the approach as “kiddie care” and pushed forward with the sweeping overhaul she painstakingly steered through the House by a razor-thin margin.

A more recent example is Mrs. Pelosi’s stated refusal to consider extending Bush-era income tax cuts for the highest brackets past their January expiration. Mr. Obama’s aides recently signaled that he might be open to doing so temporarily if that were the only way of preserving the tax cuts for the middle class — a bargain the president had steadfastly resisted before the election.

Such a deal wouldn’t be acceptable to her or House Democrats, Mrs. Pelosi told the president last week.

The White House says Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi have uniform goals and a proven track record of working together, and insists they’re on the same page on important issues, particularly preserving the health care and financial regulation laws enacted this year against Republicans’ promised attempts to roll them back.

“The president and Speaker Pelosi have enjoyed a remarkably productive working relationship over the last two years, and he looks forward to continuing to work with her on an agenda to strengthen the economy, create jobs and move America forward,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

The president isn’t going to be in a position during the next two years to work exclusively with either Democrats or Republicans, his aides argue. His challenge will be determining what concessions he needs from the GOP to forge a good compromise, the aides say.

People close to Mrs. Pelosi say she trusts the president — perhaps more so than some of her allies in Congress do — to defend core Democratic principles in his dealings with the GOP.

Some Democrats argue that Mrs. Pelosi’s liberal streak might help the president in that context — a bad cop to Obama’s good cop.

“In his negotiations with the Republicans, [Mr. Obama] needs to be able to say, ‘Look, you say you’re not going to compromise, but I’ve got Nancy Pelosi over here who is very passionate about these issues, and I have to listen to what she’s saying,’” Mr. Cummings said.

The process is not likely to be tidy.

A band of centrist Democrats who last week failed to oust Mrs. Pelosi in favor of a fresh, more moderate face for the party is ready to side with Republicans on key issues next year. They say they’re eager to work with Mr. Obama and the GOP on middle-of-the-road initiatives that are unlikely to be embraced by Mrs. Pelosi or her liberal allies.

“I’d like to think there’s an opportunity to do that,” said Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, a leader of the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats.

The coalition, comprised mostly of Southerners who were once known as “Yellow Dog” Democrats, was born after the Republican takeover of 1994, when it was said that they felt “choked blue” by their colleagues on the left.

In those days, Mr. Matheson noted, they worked with President Clinton on welfare reform and balancing the budget — things that enraged liberals and led to angry accusations that the president was betraying his own party. Welfare is “an example of being honest brokers, working together to get things done, and that’s what Blue Dogs want to do.”

It’s not what Mrs. Pelosi or many other Democrats have in mind.

Rep. Brian Higgins, New York Democrat, said Democrats learned from the past two years and their shellacking at the polls that “we need to be more aggressive with the White House. They were looking for what was acceptable and then moving toward that, instead of what was important, and moving toward that,” Higgins said. “We need to be true to our principles.”

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