By Melinda Henneberger, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi admires President Barack Obama’s vow to support only those Democrats who agree with him on what he calls “common sense gun reform.” But that doesn’t mean she’ll follow his lead.
“I’m glad the president has made that statement,” she said in a wide-ranging interview for Roll Call’s new series, Power Brokers, that will debut on Friday. But “we in the House of course have a diverse caucus,” and can’t afford to pull support from those who disagree, since “it really is important for us to have a Democratic majority” again — unlikely as that now seems to be in 2016.
Then, faster than you can say, “regular order,” she pivoted right away from guns: “One consensus that we have is that we support working families,” and “fight the trickle-down economy of tax breaks for the wealthy.”
Pelosi herself is a strong proponent of gun control, but doesn’t like to hear it put quite that way. “I’m a strong proponent of gun safety,” she said. “I don’t know that the president said gun control; we’re talking about responsible, reasonable, common-sense background checks.”
Whatever you call it, would the issue keep her from supporting, say, Rep. Gene Green of Texas, a strong proponent of gun rights who’s received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association?
“Many people in the NRA support responsible background checks,” Pelosi said frowning, but not answering.
Dealing with the mental health piece of legislation intended to prevent mass shootings is challenging, she said, because of privacy issues and the fact that a “minute” number of those who suffer from a mental illness pose any threat.
But she batted down the suggestion that Congress hasn’t moved to combat mass shootings because Republicans only want to address mental health, Democrats have prioritized gun control, and neither will move without the other.
“It’s not that we’re saying we’re not going to do mental health until you do guns — we’ve never said that. I did mental health parity. I did mental health in the Affordable Care Act. We need to do more.”
Asked what she thinks explains the anger that seems to have propelled billionaire businessman Donald Trump to the front of the Republican field, she said, “I leave the Republican nominating process to the Republicans.” But the fury, in her view, is “basically economic, at a time when they feel they’re at a disadvantage” because “of our inability to contain the exploitation of Wall Street — some on Wall Street. But immigrants have always been a scapegoat.”
If the current Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is elected president, would she be any more likely to work successfully with Republicans in Congress than Obama has?
“I would hope so,” she said, but that depends on whether “the American people can be more aware of the obstruction,” that Republicans, as she sees it, have been responsible for throughout Obama’s presidency.
“People say, ‘Why can’t you get along?’ No, they’re obstructing the president. He has extended the hand of friendship to them over and over again. So I think in terms of Hillary Clinton — then, President Clinton — and, by the way, when she enters the Oval Office she will be one of the best prepared people to walk in there in modern times.”
Wait, was that an endorsement?
“Well, it may be, one of these days soon.”
Will she, though, be any more likely to work well with Congress?
“There are,” she said, pausing, “certain unspoken things about why the Republicans have gotten away with what they have gotten away with what they have obstructed with President Obama.”
She’s referring to race?
“Well, I’m referring to a lot of things, but nonetheless, I don’t know that the American people would tolerate, with increased awareness of why they are obstructing, why they would obstruct the first woman president of the United States.”
Another female leader in her party, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, recently got into some trouble for suggesting younger women may not be as enthusiastic about Clinton’s presidential campaign as older women because they’re “complacent” about abortion rights. Pelosi defended Wasserman Schultz from the criticism that followed; is that because she agrees that younger women are complacent, or that that issue explains the gap in enthusiasm between younger and older women? Neither, Pelosi said.
She certainly doesn’t believe the abortion issue is suppressing excitement for Clinton: “Young men and young women are gravitating to Bernie Sanders; it isn’t about one issue.”
Instead, “I support her because she’s a valued member of Congress.” Wasserman Schultz “came here as an experienced legislator, a progressive from Florida and I, again, value her service and her leadership.”
Speaking of leadership, is there anyone she sees as the next Nancy Pelosi — or for that matter, as the next Steve Israel? The perception, of course, is that the presumed next generation of leaders is giving up and moving on, with Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards running for the Maryland Senate seat that Barbara A. Mikulski’s retirement will leave open and Israel retiring from public service.
“I wouldn’t even think of naming a person here because there are so many excellent members” who will be coming up behind her, though neither Pelosi, who is 75, nor Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who is 76, is in any hurry to retire.
The conventional wisdom is that Pelosi’s bench is getting thin.
Not so, she said: “The bench is very crowded. In fact, the bench is practically the whole stadium. … They all have a baton in their duffel bag; any one of them could step forward.”
She and Hoyer first worked together in their 20s, in the office of Maryland Sen. Danny Brewster. But she dismissed as all wrong the widely trafficked story that the perceived competition between the two Maryland natives might date to when Hoyer was made Brewster’s scheduler while Pelosi was relegated to work as a receptionist. “That’s absolutely not true. … I was in the reception area and did constituent mail; I learned a lot doing that. I don’t really know what Steny’s job — he had perhaps just what you describe — but Steny was ahead of me; he was in law school, and I had absolutely no intention of ever running for office. That is cute, but that’s not …”
… the genesis of the rivalry?
“No, and there is no rivalry, but it certainly was not any rivalry then.”
A definite rival in the marketplace of ideas, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, has for years now been talking about poverty and anti-poverty programs in a way that even Democrats haven’t always done; what does she make of that?
Only that words and actions are two different things, she said, as we see when “everybody talks about the middle class, and yet there’s the destruction of the middle class because of the trickle-down policies” of the GOP.
“I respect the sincerity of the speaker when he addresses the issue of poverty,” she said, “but his budget speaks louder than any words … and the Ryan budget was something very destructive to the aspirations of poor people.”
It’s still too early, she said, to weigh in on just how working with him is any different from working with his predecessor, John A. Boehner, though “they’re both very fine gentlemen.”
Asked what she most dares to hope House Democrats can accomplish in this new session, she began with a strictly political answer: “It’s really important,” she said, “for us to be able to convey to the American people what is at stake in the Congress, what the debate is about.”
What she hopes they come to see is that it’s really all about who has the leverage, the wealthy or the middle class. “That will be the debate; I don’t want to say (that will be the) fight.”
©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst