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Divisions among Democrats test Pelosi as leader
San Francisco Chronicle


June 16, 2006

WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's ability to hold her caucus together is being tested as internal party disputes over war, ethics and its own leadership erupt into public view.

In an extraordinary show of toughness against one of their own members, Democrats voted 99-58 Thursday evening to strip Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat from New Orleans accused of accepting bribes, of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee. The vote allows Democrats to maintain that they do not tolerate impropriety, yet the sanction already has placed a strain on the caucus.




Pelosi has presided over a period of remarkable unity among members of a party not traditionally known for its harmony. Though critics warned when she became leader three years ago that a San Francisco liberal would encounter troubles leading a national party, the fault lines have not ruptured along traditional liberal-conservative lines, a friction to which Pelosi has paid careful attention.

Several factors have brought attention to party differences: members flexing their muscles during this week's debate over Iraq, black members complaining about efforts to oust Jefferson and a surprise bid for the No. 2 House leadership slot by a Pelosi ally.

Pelosi has personally involved herself in each of the disputes, and outside of Capitol Hill has so far kept them relatively low-profile affairs.

Whether the episodes reflect a growing confidence among Democrats that they will be the majority party after next year's election, or the news media's obsession with exposing conflict, the attention has become a distraction for Democrats intent on presenting a unified front in the coming campaign. It also has provided an opening for Republicans to assert that their opponents are stumbling.

The front page of the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, quoted a Democratic aide describing Wednesday's weekly closed-door party meeting as a "circus" as members fought over who should control time on the House floor during the Iraq debate.

House Majority Leader John Boehner distributed a memo to reporters Thursday titled "Democrats Divided: No Leadership, No Unity on Winning the War on Terror."

Pelosi, who has drawn her strength as a leader in large part from her ability to keep Democrats together, rejects the notion that members of her caucus are not as united as they once were.

"That's just not true. That's simply not true. I hate to disappoint you, it's simply not true," Pelosi said in response to a reporter's query Thursday. "In terms of unity, we are confident we're where we want to be. If you want to write a story that we're not unified, I think you're barking up the wrong tree."

Pelosi has worked hard to alleviate concerns among conservative Democrats that her liberal ideology would get in the way of her quest to win a majority. Her inclusion of a pay-as-you-go plank in the Democrats' just released New Direction for America platform reflects the influence of moderate Democrats on her strategy.

Pelosi described the difference of opinions as the "creative dynamic that exists in a political party."

If all Democrats agreed, "we'd only need one person to show up, in that case, and that wouldn't be very interesting. The beauty of this job is that I have this energy bubbling up there, whether it's personal ambition, whether it's idealism for issues, or some combination thereof," she said. "I think this is all a sign of life."

Internal jostling may intensify as the party grows closer to power, said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and the author of the 1994 book, "Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House."

He said it wasn't evident in the Republican Party in 1994 "if only because no one thought they were going to get the majority until the election was upon them."

In addition, Pitney said, then-Republican leader Newt Gingrich had a stronger hold over his members than Pelosi does today.

Mixed signals on an issue like Iraq, though not devastating, may nonetheless weaken the Democrats' message Pitney said.

Pelosi, who opposed the war from the start, has spent many months trying to get Democrats, including those who supported the war, to stand behind a single message. Earlier this year, Democrats settled on the position that 2006 should be a year of "significant transition" in Iraq, something which many anti-war activists feel is too broadly worded to mean anything.

In the closed-door meeting leading up to Thursday's meeting, tempers reportedly flared as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, demanded that she and other members of the Out of Iraq Caucus be given a prominent role in the debate, insisting that they had been leaders on the issue.

"We're all leaders," Pelosi replied according to one participant in the meeting, who asked not to be identified, further angering some anti-war members.


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