By Ginger Gibson
Nancy Pelosi wants to make a deal.
But every time it appears she could deliver the votes for important legislation, the House minority leader is left standing with no one to negotiate with.
In the run-up to the shutdown, some observers believed that eventually House Speaker John Boehner would have to turn to Pelosi (D-Calif.) to cobble together a bipartisan coalition to avert government closure. And in doing so, Pelosi would gain leverage to negotiate something for House Democrats.
But just two days before a possible U.S. debt default and more than two weeks into the shutdown, Boehner's request has yet to come.
Instead, Pelosi has reached out to the speaker nearly every day for weeks, according to Democratic aides, either talking to the Republican leader on the floor or calling him to the point of pestering.
But Boehner has yet to solicit her help -- despite Pelosi's ability to deliver House Democrats and the fact that most of them would support a government funding bill and debt ceiling hike without controversial policy add-ons. So, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrangled a deal, with Boehner and McConnell talking, Pelosi has yet to find herself at the negotiating table. But that doesn't mean she's not interjected herself into the discussions, offering almost daily to work with Boehner and keeping herself in the loop with Reid and President Barack Obama.
The Democratic leader could still be central to a deal if Boehner agrees to put on the floor any Senate pact to stop the shutdown and avert default. And her ability to unite House Democrats -- a key voting bloc if Boehner upsets conservatives by allowing a vote on a bipartisan measure -- is duly noted.
"We will prevail if we see the big picture: Our unity gives the president leverage," Pelosi told her caucus in a closed meeting on Thursday, according to an aide at the meeting.
Democratic House members and aides insist Pelosi is playing a key role in the shutdown-debt hike crises. And surprisingly, Democrats aren't clamoring for her to exact concessions from an eventual deal -- at this point anyway.
Democrats and observers pointed to Pelosi's iron-clad ability to keep her caucus unified -- and in line with Reid -- as the negotiations play out as crucial to the endgame.
"Leader Pelosi has an impeccable sense of the time for every season," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. "Given the fact that there have been absolutely no negotiations among any of the parties up until now -- negotiations, not even conversations worthy of the name, she understood quite naturally that her role was to hold the Democrats together. To provide unity, to backstop both the White House and, frankly, Harry Reid."
"She has [had a role] behind the scenes; the president knows exactly what Nancy wants," Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said. "And Nancy has control of the Democratic Caucus and Boehner can't get anything through unless Nancy releases enough Democrats to let it through. Everybody knows the calculations."
But instead of trying to get something in exchange for the possible support of Democrats, Pelosi seems content to give stuff away.
She agreed to accept the Republican budget number of $986 billion annually, a far cry from the $1.058 trillion that Democrats wanted -- getting 195 Democrats to put it in writing. She then volunteered to give up one of the only ways the minority can force votes on the House floor during a budget debate, a procedure called "motions to instruct" that are allowed if a budget conference reaches a standoff for more than 20 days.
In the lead-up to the shutdown, House Democrats insisted they wouldn't accept sequester-level budget numbers. But Pelosi made a deal with her members: She would ensure sequester spending stayed in place for only six weeks, giving them time to try to increase the numbers in order to support a bill that kept government open. It was a simple trade-off -- Democrats would appear to be the ones accepting compromise and avert blame for the shutdown in exchange for the lower numbers.
Even as the Senate has negotiated a possible end to the shutdown that would keep sequester cuts in place into the new year, Pelosi has made the case that Democrats are better off accepting the deal instead of pushing back.
"That's been very important, not only [for] unity within our caucus but unity with Harry Reid," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said. "A lot of our members are not happy about the sequester levels, so that was no easy lift."
Pelosi walks a fine line. Signing off on a deal that goes too far -- keeps sequester levels in place for a longer period, changes entitlement programs or cuts more spending -- could cost some of the support she has worked meticulously to keep in her corner.
"There is no doubt that there have been thousands of anxieties and worries and questions and people putting forward different scenarios," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said. "She's the one who really keeps her eye on the main ball to keep the caucus together, and she's just indispensable to us."
"She's been very clear in this back-and-forth in the Senate as to what House Democrats would and could support," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee. "That's been an important balancing factor here."
The California Democrat hasn't drawn deep lines in the sand and has allowed members to break with her when necessary. House Republicans first started moving piecemeal bills to fund the government under a rules suspension, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage.
But Pelosi was able to get enough of her members to oppose those bills to defeat them on the House floor. When House Republicans moved forward under normal rules, she backed down, telling members when they could vote with Republicans while still impressing upon them that it was important not to give the House GOP cover.
The result has been a series of votes where Democratic members have broken to vote with Republicans on bills that matter in their districts but not in a way that has provided the GOP overwhelming bipartisan support.
"She's very respectful of every single member, so she doesn't force people to go with her. She puts out to the caucus, to the members what she thinks is the most prudent path, but Nancy Pelosi does not force people," Eshoo said.
Pelosi has also kept her members focused on a common enemy: Republicans.
"Their pockets are deep, but their values are not," Pelosi said at the Thursday caucus meeting, according to a Democratic aide at the meeting.
"[Pelosi's] strongest role has been to keep our caucus firm and united in the positions," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. "We've had some slippage where 30 or 40 members have voted for the piecemeal stuff, but overall that's held too. The message about let us have a vote has been very strong. Another indication for us is her work with outside organizations, with labor, the groups with the national parks and making sure caucus members are in touch with them and they get in touch with us."
Last Wednesday, Boehner asked Pelosi to come to his office for a meeting. She thought it was going to be a chance to talk about whether she might be able to deliver votes for a deal. But that wasn't the case.
"They had no proposal, or they just wanted to say: "See, we invited Democrats, but we don't have anything to talk about,'" she said the next day about the meeting at a press conference.
Part of the dynamic has been caused by the need for Boehner to keep his own members on board. Simply turning to Pelosi for votes would spark some of the most conservatives of the Republican Conference to immediately revolt.
It's not the first time Pelosi was poised to deliver House votes only to have plans change dramatically.
When President Barack Obama turned to Congress for approval of a U.S. strike in Syria, it became clear quickly that Pelosi was going to have to produce a large number of House Democrats to pass the bill. But the vote never happened.
Pelosi was ready to give Republicans the votes to pass a more moderate farm bill, one that would have included funding for food stamps at a level tenable to Democrats. But when an amendment was added that allowed states to cut the benefits, a deal-breaker for Democrats, her caucus abandoned the bill and it subsequently died on the floor. Instead of going back to Pelosi to try to strike a deal that would lure Democrats, the Republicans stripped out the food stamps entirely and passed the bill on a partisan vote.
"She has a good professional relationship with [Boehner]," Eshoo said. "She talks to him at least every other day, "Can I help?' "Anything that you want me to know?' so it's very professional."
Eshoo added: "None of this is personal for her."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the value of the Democratic budget. They set the spending levels at $1.058 trillion.