WASHINGTON — As Congress barreled toward a government shutdown Thursday evening, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Californian who has led House Democrats for 15 years, gathered her troops to urge them to vote no on a spending bill that would keep the government open.
“We’re better when we stick together,” one lawmaker recalled her saying, as she implored unity around demands that Republican leaders commit to a vote on a measure to protect young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
But Democrats did not stick together; 73 of them voted for the spending bill, ensuring its passage, despite large-scale Republican defections that would have killed it. Ms. Pelosi now says she wanted it to pass all along.
“We had a great bill; we got everything,” she said in an interview Friday, adding, “Republicans gave away the store.”
The mixed messages from the Democratic leader marked another turn in a political high-wire act that has become one of the longest running in Washington. At 77, Ms. Pelosi remains a dominant figure in the Democratic Party, its highest-ranking woman in the capital and the only woman ever to rise to House speaker. She is also a polarizing figure — increasingly even with Democrats — and as the budget vote indicated, she may be losing what was once an iron grip.
As Congress turns to the difficult topic of immigration — the Senate is expected to begin debate this week — some are wondering if Ms. Pelosi is the person to lead her party on an issue that goes to the heart of Democratic divisions in the era of President Trump.
Ms. Pelosi “didn’t have any cohesive message,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina and the chief deputy whip, told reporters. “She negotiated the deal. Her team was in on it. She acknowledges it.”
“And at the end, her team broke,” he said. “So I see a fractured caucus on the other side.”
To liberals and minorities in the broad Democratic coalition, immigration and the defense of the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers have become missions of resistance against a callous Trump administration. But to Democrats fighting to maintain their handholds in the center of the country, a singular focus on immigration is politically problematic — if not suicidal. In her maneuvering on the issue, Ms. Pelosi has managed to displease some on both sides.
“We need to unite the agenda and unite the Democrats right now around a strong economic agenda,” said Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, who waged an unsuccessful bid in 2016 to replace Ms. Pelosi as leader.
Mr. Ryan, 44, is among a number of House Democrats who would like to see a younger generation of leaders take power. He and others say Ms. Pelosi’s focus on Dreamers — including her decision to commandeer the House floor for more than eight hours on Wednesday to talk about their plight — was eclipsing the party’s economic message, spelling trouble for centrist Democrats, especially those in red states and districts won by Mr. Trump.
“If you’re going into a budget battle like this you can’t go in with just a million Dreamers,” Mr. Ryan said. “You need the retired coal miners, the retired Teamsters. You need the groups that support the community health clinics, the opiate coalition. They should have all been together.”
Ms. Pelosi’s eight-hour soliloquy on Wednesday, at times, offered a tableau that underscored the Democrats’ generational, and philosophical, divide. Arrayed behind her as she concluded her speech were veteran female representatives: Zoe Lofgren of California, Nydia M. Velázquez of New York, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. A new generation of Democrats was nowhere in camera view.
The women who stood by her see Ms. Pelosi, and her call to action on immigration, as critical to taking back the House.
“She made a global statement to the America and the world that who has been fighting for Dreamers? It has been the Democrats,” Ms. Jackson Lee said. “And let me just say as a woman, this was a powerful statement for what I believe is again going to be the year of the woman, because she took charge.”
And Ms. Pelosi herself shows no sign of relinquishing power. As she looks ahead to November, she insists she is not driven by a desire to become speaker again — even as she defends her own performance.
“I don’t think about it at all,” she said, adding, “It’s an awesome power, and I just want the Democrats to have the gavel. It doesn’t have to be me, but I’m good at what I do.”
Ms. Pelosi was part of the bipartisan negotiations that led to the budget deal, which included $131 billion for Democratic priorities — including public works, children’s and veterans’ health programs and opioid abuse prevention — as well as an infusion of money for hurricane-ravaged areas like Puerto Rico and Texas. She said she understood that, for many in her caucus, the deal was “too good” to vote against.
But the leader had also made personal commitments to the Dreamers, hundreds of thousands of whom have been shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program called DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Mr. Trump rescinded the program and gave Congress until early March to come up with a replacement. Ms. Pelosi and her fellow Democrats had promised the young immigrants that a measure to help them would be included in any spending deal — a promise she was not able to keep.
In staging her marathon monologue — the longest in more than a century, according to the House historian — and pressing for no votes on the spending bill, Ms. Pelosi hoped to pressure Speaker Paul D. Ryan into scheduling a free and open debate on immigration, as Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, did in the Senate.
Mr. McConnell is giving the Senate a week to debate any immigration issue that senators wish to bring up; rather than put a measure on the floor, he has taken the highly unusual step of introducing a shell bill that senators may amend and shape as they see fit.
In effect, he is allowing the Senate to build an immigration bill from scratch; no one has any idea how it will turn out.
Mr. Ryan has refused to follow suit, though he has pledged to take up an immigration bill at some point, so long as it is one the president supports. And now that the spending bill has been adopted, Democrats in the House may have lost whatever leverage they had to demand protections for the Dreamers.
“We would like to have had a commitment from the speaker, but we’re not stopping,” Ms. Pelosi said.
That is unlikely to mollify her critics on the left, who say she did not work hard enough to force Speaker Ryan’s hand. Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois, said that if Ms. Pelosi had really wanted to take a stand to protect the Dreamers, she could have threatened to strip lawmakers of their committee assignments if they did not vote no on the budget deal.
“There’s all kinds of ways, I assure you, that leadership exercises its influence — the least of which are floor speeches,” Mr. Gutiérrez said tartly.
Ms. Pelosi offered a terse reply: “It’s a highly emotional time for all of us. I’m not going to respond to that.”
To her backers, Ms. Pelosi is still an indefatigable worker with a steel spine, a master legislator and a consummate fund-raiser, which is one reason she retains her hold on power. Her office says she has raised $643.5 million for Democrats since she entered leadership in 2002, although those numbers could not be verified independently.
But for Republicans, Ms. Pelosi is a convenient foil, easily portrayed as out of touch with Middle America. Polls have shown for years that far more Americans view her unfavorably than favorably.
Speaking at an event to promote his tax bill last week in Ohio, Mr. Trump called Ms. Pelosi Republicans’ “secret weapon,” and mocked her for calling bonuses given to workers “crumbs” compared with the tax bill’s huge benefits for corporate America.
“She’s a rich woman who lives in a big, beautiful house in California who wants to give all your money away,” Mr. Trump said. “And she talked about crumbs.”
Ms. Pelosi stands by the “crumbs” remark, saying Republicans were taking it out of context. But it is already making its way into 2018 political advertising, including an upcoming special election in Pennsylvania. David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that in an era when voters are disaffected with Washington, it is difficult for Democrats to make the case that they are change agents with Ms. Pelosi at the helm.
“There’s no question she’s been a highly skilled legislative tactician for Democrats for decades; she has also been very effective for Democrats raising money and behind the scenes,” Mr. Wasserman said. “But if House Democrats could do one thing to improve their odds of winning the House back, it would probably be to install leaders that no one’s ever heard of.”
Ms. Pelosi’s defenders say the attack ads are to be expected, and a sign of her strength.
“When you’re the leader, you’re going to be bullied and demagogued by the other side,” said Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the campaign committee charged with electing Democrats to the House. “There’s a reason why national Republican organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking the leader throughout the years. And they’re going to continue to.”
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