Wall Street Journal: Nancy Pelosi Charts Middle Ground as Democrats Divide on Trade Bills

June 11, 2015
By Kristina Peterson

WASHINGTON—The challenge of managing her fractious Democratic caucus on contentious trade legislation finally took its toll Thursday on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.)

“Once a year, I have a Coca-Cola,” Mrs. Pelosi, who doesn’t drink alcohol and has soda only rarely, told House Democrats at a closed-door meeting on trade, according to an aide in the room. “Today, I needed a drink.”

Thursday’s lunchtime meeting was just the most recent example of the competing demands Mrs. Pelosi faces from President Barack Obama and the Democrats who support his trade agenda—as well as the labor groups and their liberal allies who vociferously oppose it.

As Democrats met just hours before the first vote on the trade legislation, Mrs. Pelosi had administration officials come present their case for the trade deal. Once they were whisked out, Richard Trumka—president of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest union federation—took the floor to argue the other side.

While Mrs. Pelosi hasn't said how she will vote on the centerpiece bill setting up a fast-track process for considering a future trade deal, she hasn't been working to derail its passage. Earlier this week, she met with House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) to find a different way to pay for a program helping workers displaced by a trade agreement. Democrats had balked at a provision in the Senate bill that pays for the program with cuts to Medicare providers.

Though Republican leaders agreed to pay for the program with another source of money, some Democrats still had qualms because the fix would be made through a separate piece of legislation and could still open them up to political attacks over the Medicare cuts.

Republicans “are already preparing the TV commercials to attack Democrats for cutting Medicare,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D., Calif.) “Whether [Mrs. Pelosi] will accept a worldview that well, if we just do it this way we won’t be attacked and we won’t lose any seats on the issue, she may be more trusting than I am.”

But even many of the Democrats opposed to the fast-track bill said Mrs. Pelosi has been effective in trying to extract changes sought by Democrats from GOP leaders and has been evenhanded in allowing both supporters and critics of the legislation to present their arguments.

“Nancy Pelosi used her best skills,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.) said Thursday.

The trade debate has put some distance between Mrs. Pelosi’s careful position and some lawmakers who are normally her closest allies, such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), one of the loudest critics of the trade bill.

Mrs. Pelosi worked Thursday to assuage lawmakers’ concerns over the workers’ aid program, a House Democratic aide said, even while some liberal lawmakers want to block it and derail the full package of trade bills. She was expected to continue conversations with lawmakers at Thursday night’s congressional baseball game.

“She is in the middle trying to balance,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas), who supports the fast-track trade bill. “She doesn’t want the president to fail, but at the same time she’s got a lot of progressive Democrats and she’s doing a great job trying to balance everything.”