Opinion: Never underestimate Nancy Pelosi


Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.


On Tuesday, the US Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package by a 69-30 vote. Now, the only obstacle that stands in the way of it becoming law is passage in the US House of Representatives.

Lincoln Mitchell

Courtesy Lincoln Mitchell

Lincoln Mitchell

At first glance this might not seem like an obstacle at all, considering the House has a Democratic majority. But Democrats only have a slim majority, and many in the progressive wing of the party have concerns about the limitations of the infrastructure bill. They want to pair it with the $3.5 trillion budget package working its way through the Senate.

Meanwhile, some moderate Democrats in the House are concerned with the price tag of the budget bill – as well as some of the provisions included within. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will therefore face a significant challenge in rounding up the necessary votes to pass the infrastructure bill.

However, it is essential that the House pass this bill. Not only will it provide necessary infrastructure upgrades agreed upon by both parties in the Senate, but its passage is a key test of the Democrats’ ability to effectively deliver for the American people when in power.

For President Joe Biden, who has made infrastructure one of his key legislative issues, the stakes could not be higher. But he can breathe a little easier because no legislator in recent decades has been as adept as Pelosi at counting the votes – and knowing when she has the votes she needs. In 2009, it was Pelosi who promised then-President Barack Obama the votes on the Affordable Care Act. She delivered then – and she will deliver more than a decade later for Biden, too.

While the progressive caucus has grown significantly since 2009, Pelosi’s seasoned political and legislative skills have prepared her for this moment. Throughout the Trump era, Pelosi kept the Democratic caucus unified in its opposition to Trump, using her majority to prevent any major legislation by the former President during his last two years in office. In addition, she delivered not one, but two, impeachment votes during that period. Nearly all Democratic House Members voted for impeachment in 2019, and the entire Democratic House conference supported impeachment in 2021. (While Trump was impeached both times, he was not convicted either time in the Senate.)

If she can keep her caucus focused on the threat that the Republican Party, largely still loyal to Trump, poses – especially if this bill fails – she should succeed. And Pelosi fully recognizes the challenge she will face from House Republicans. While 19 Senate Republicans voted for the recent infrastructure bill, Republicans in the House will likely be considerably more unified in their opposition to the bill – not least because they know the damage they can do to Biden and Pelosi by obstructing passage of the legislation.

Any Republican opposition to the infrastructure bill means that Pelosi will have to win 217 out of 220 Democratic votes in the House. (There are currently three vacancies in that chamber, so there are only 432 voting members of the House.) This leaves almost no room for error for the Speaker and other supporters of the infrastructure bill.

This is particularly problematic because almost half of Pelosi’s conference – 96 members – have objected to the passage of the infrastructure bill as is. The Speaker herself has indicated her support for these members who would like to see the bill funded by tax increases on the wealthy and who want to link the infrastructure bill to passage of the $3.5 trillion budget bill that would include more spending for health care, child care, the environment and other social programs. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated a willingness to move forward with that budget bill – by passing it by a simple majority in the fall.

While Pelosi has said that she wants to see the budget bill passed in the Senate before moving on the infrastructure bill, if that does not happen, she may still push the infrastructure bill through the House given its importance to Biden’s agenda. In that case, progressives who choose to take a strong stand against the bill will be picking a fight with a powerful political titan in the party.

If progressives decide to stop the bill from passing, they need to be prepared to be marginalized by the Speaker and given less influence in Congress. Conservative Democrats who oppose her on the budget bill, which enjoys support from the larger progressive group, may face similar consequences. This was the fate of New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, who opposed Pelosi’s bid for Speaker following the 2018 election and was then denied a seat on the powerful Judiciary Committee. Pelosi argued it was because New York was already well represented on the committee, but others saw it as an act of revenge. In other words, opposing Pelosi on this means picking a fight that could be very costly down the road.

It’s important to remember that the infrastructure bill would not have gotten this far down the road if Pelosi did not believe she had the votes to pass it. After all, Biden, Pelosi and Schumer are very experienced legislators. They have been discussing and coordinating around this bill for weeks – and Pelosi likely knows precisely what she needs to do, perhaps with a little help from the President who can make phone calls and offer incentives to noncommittal members to get the bill across the finish line.

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If progressives ultimately do not listen to Pelosi and block the infrastructure bill, they will be seen as responsible not just for torpedoing a significant piece of legislation, but as weakening their party and a Democratic President. Making the perfect the enemy of the good is a problem progressives often face, but to do that now would have enormous political consequences.

Many Democratic voters could become exasperated with their party’s progressive wing and cast their primary votes in 2022 accordingly. More significantly, if the infrastructure bill is defeated in the House, Democrats running for Congress will have to go in front of the voters in 2022 without having passed such an important and popular piece of legislation.

There is still a lot that can happen as the infrastructure bill winds its way to the President’s desk. However, the Speaker of the House has been around politics too long and understands voting too well to let it go much further unless she is absolutely certain that she has the votes.

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