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‘Captain of a ship in uncharted waters’: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s first months of the new Congress

On the cusp of passing President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could move the legislation without a single Democratic defection.

It’s a sign of Democrats’ willingness to back the President on his first big legislative push and a reflection of Pelosi’s firm hold on the caucus that may prove her most challenging yet.

In her fourth term as speaker, Pelosi is managing the slimmest majority in her tenure, a challenge even for a seasoned leader who shepherded her caucus through four tumultuous years of former President Donald Trump. Once at odds with a President who called her “a third rate politician,” repeated conspiracy theories about a deadly pandemic and was impeached — not once, but twice — by the House of Representatives, Pelosi’s job then was to draw out the differences between Democrats and Republicans. Now, her work consists of ensuring her caucus stays united for a Democratic President.

“The speaker is the captain of the ship in uncharted waters right now. This is a very, very difficult position to be in,” Democratic Rep. Jason Crow told CNN. “She’s done a very nice job navigating things.”

Behind the scenes, some rank-and-file members say Pelosi has led the Congress in the opening weeks with an “iron fist” — a symptom of the fact she has little room for error in her own caucus with just a five-vote margin and is leading in an unprecedented moment as the House grapples with an attack on the Capitol that roiled her chamber on January 6.

“She is going to run this train as quickly as she can run it,” one Democratic member told CNN on the condition of background to freely discuss their leadership’s moves. “Until she runs into a problem, she is going to get away with it.”

To that point, Pelosi held firm Thursday night that the minimum wage provision would be in the version of the bill the House takes up on Friday even though the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the proposal would not be in the Senate’s version of the Covid relief bill.

But even as Democrats privately express concerns about specific provisions in the coronavirus relief bill or the speed at which it has moved through the House of Representatives with just Democratic support, most contend they will ultimately vote for it.

“The speaker knows at the end of the day that those votes will be there with what Biden puts forward, and so that’s the sense she has,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California. “She’s trying to be fair and thoughtful about giving everyone participation, but knowing ultimately that a Democrat is very unlikely to vote against the first major initiative of the President of the United States.”

Khanna, who is a member of the Progressive Caucus and former chairman to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, praised Pelosi for taking input from the Progressive Caucus when building the Covid relief package and listening when he and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made an argument to Pelosi and her staff about including the $15 minimum wage.

“As a progressive, I feel my voice is being heard, our caucus’ voice is being heard,” Khanna told CNN. “She’s been open to persuasion.”

Process for passing bill faces scrutiny

Still, the legislation has drawn criticism — for both the speed of the process by which it has been assembled and what is included in it. Another Democratic lawmaker questioned the scope of the massive Covid relief package and whether it addressed the urgency of relief needed.

“I have sort of real questions on kind of what we’re trying to achieve just in like the first three or six months,” that Democratic lawmaker told CNN. “Because I’m not here to just pass a bunch of messaging bills that are going to die in the Senate because we can’t get 60 votes. So that’s what I expect of any leadership of any organization and that’s what I’ve been trying to push with my own leadership.”

Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, lamented the speed and lack of GOP support during a markup on the relief bill.

“We’re in this very non-unified, partisan process that’s going to take time to get through the House and the Senate. You know, it’s the exact opposite of what I heard the President articulate at the inauguration,” Schrader said.

Criticizing the other pieces of funding Democrats are seeking to get through in this massive package, Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York told CNN Friday that it is “embarrassing” that the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill includes $1.5 million to fund a New York-Canada bridge and $100 million of funding to the Bay Area Rapid Transit railway in California.

“I’m not comfortable,” Espaillat said on CNN’s “Newsroom.” But he did say the package as it stands will get the country “back on the right track.”

Pelosi Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill pushed back on the notion that the bill has been passed too quickly.

“I think the reason why members feel very unified around this bill is because this process has been going on literally since last March. And we’ve spent so much time on it,” Hammill told CNN. “We did not just write this bill behind closed doors and release it. Nine committees put it together, plus three more that had smaller pieces and didn’t hold markups.”

Capitol reeling from the riot

Pelosi’s leadership in the last several weeks has been far more than just legislator, speaker or vote counter on a relief bill, however. Members have largely praised how Pelosi has navigated the caucus in the immediate aftermath of the violent insurrection that many experienced first-hand and are still reeling from. They supported her decision to move quickly to impeach Trump. They are grateful she made counseling available to members and sponsored a briefing on security for members’ spouses.

“She has said many times she is like a lioness that if you mess with her cubs, you’re dead. And, you know, she feels that it’s her responsibility to make things right, especially for institutional staff,” Hammill told CNN, who also shared that some Capitol custodial staff refer to the speaker as “mama.”

Crow, the Colorado Democrat, characterized the speaker’s decision to insert the metal detectors outside the House floor as “decisive” and as a way to make those concerned about looming security threats feel like the Capitol was a safe place again.

Pelosi also slapped hefty fines on members who blew past the metal detectors, outraging Republicans and even attracting some ire in her own party with one Democrat telling CNN they viewed Pelosi’s decision as “performative.”

Still, Democrats say they are proud of how their speaker supported the caucus after the attack.

“She’s been inspiring in how she’s handled January 6th,” Khanna said. “I have never seen the speaker with more emotion. I think she was visibly shaken up by what happened that day, visibly fearful for her staff, profoundly emotional about what that attack meant for our democracy and our country. I mean, here’s someone who has spent almost 40 years in the institutions of Congress. She believes there is a sacredness to the Capitol.”

‘How about they be bipartisan’

Not only must the speaker navigate keeping her own caucus together, she must also figure out how to forge bipartisanship at a time when investigations into the security and intelligence failures that led to January 6 have just barely scratched the surface. Members have accused their colleagues of giving reconnaissance tours in the days leading up to the riot, and the speaker herself has expressed concern that the “the enemy is within the House of Representatives,” as she said in January.

“It’s interesting, it seems like we’re always the ones talking about bipartisanship, you know as a Democratic caucus and it’s a very important thing but, you know, I’d like to see some bipartisanship from my GOP colleagues,” Crow told CNN.

“How about they be bipartisan and stop trying to bring firearms onto the House floor, so that their colleagues can feel comfortable and safe,” Crow said, referring to Rep. Andy Harris setting off a metal detector outside the House floor last month for trying to carry a concealed gun on his side.

Members who work closely with Pelosi attest the speaker is strategic and understanding about the political dynamics of her members’ districts. But the months ahead will reveal deeper schisms among Democrats as they debate immigration and infrastructure than were previously seen when it was the party united against Trump. The speaker is managing a caucus that at one end includes outspoken progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar of Minnesota fighting for the Green New Deal. At the other end of the political spectrum is a collection of moderate members who defeated Republicans by single digits and for whom slogans like “defund the police” could cost their seats.

“When we laugh together, we cry together, we’re inspired together, we find our common ground more easily,” Pelosi told reporters the day after Biden was inaugurated, making a clear call for unity and marking the start of a new chapter.

In the months after the November election, in which House Democrats lost more seats than anticipated, the caucus held a collection of grievance-airing conference calls. The chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced she wouldn’t run for reelection and moderates pleaded with their colleagues to focus more on what could pass and less on messaging bills.

Pelosi held on comfortably to her gavel with just a handful of defections. Still, members say they want to make sure leadership stays engaged with the moderate wing of her party.

“Because some of the Covid precautions are going to continue and because we are relatively far away from a place we can gather and debate in person and discuss policies and priorities that we now have to be adaptive, and we need leadership to more fully bring in the voices and opinions of the rest of the caucus,” one Democratic member said.

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