Energy crisis sees Pelosi run a tight ship

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Energy and the price of a gallon of petrol will no doubt be at the forefront of Nancy Pelosi’s mind this week when – as is her routine – she travels in from her regular hair appointment in Georgetown to Capitol Hill in a convoy of two SUVs.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives has a tough task at hand before Congress begins its August recess: ensuring that Democratic legislators do not return home empty-handed, without any proof that they are taking action to tackle record petrol prices.

One Democratic proposal that would have required the government to sell 70m barrels of light sweet crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve failed to pass the House last week.

In the meantime, Republicans appear to be gaining traction in their call to expand offshore drilling – putting pressure on Ms Pelosi to keep her caucus unified, including conservative Democrats who might be tempted to side with the Republicans on that issue.

Steering the Democrats’ response to the energy crisis without alienating environmentalists or the struggling middle class could prove to be one of the biggest tests Ms Pelosi will face this year. Her record suggests that the speaker will respond to the challenge with astute political manoeuvring, showing once again that, though she is labelled a “San Francisco liberal”, the roots of her political education lie in the rough and tumble world of Baltimore, where her father was mayor.

Outside Washington, Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House conveyed the sense that the New York senator and former first lady was the most powerful woman in the capital, perhaps even the world. Inside the beltway, it is no secret that crown belongs to Ms Pelosi.

In the 20 months since she became the first female speaker of the House, a position that puts her second in the line of succession to become president, the congresswoman from San Francisco has proven herself to be a pragmatic and iron-fisted leader of the traditionally fractious Democratic caucus.

Under her leadership, Democrats have backed the majority position 91 per cent of the time, the highest so-called “unity score” Democrats have achieved in 51 years.

She achieved that, says one senior Republican lobbyist, by taking cues from the former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich: centralising power in her office and, when necessary, side-stepping powerful committee chairmen by creating ad hoc committees to tackle sensitive issues such as global warming.

When earlier this year President George W. Bush sought to put Ms Pelosi “in a box” by forcing a vote on the Colombia Free Trade agreement, the lobbyist says, she shut him down by scrapping the so-called fast-track procedure that allowed trade deals a swift passage through the House for 30 years, in order to save Democrats from having to take sides on a controversial issue in an election year.

She has proved herself to be more pragmatic on economic issues, where she forged deals with the administration on a broad stimulus package and housing legislation.

When the prolonged battle for the Democratic presidential nomination threatened to weaken her party’s chances of winning the White House, Ms Pelosi, along with Harry Reid, the Senate leader, declared that the race would have to end in June.

Though she did not offer Barack Obama, her party’s presumptive nominee, an outright endorsement, the move closed Mrs Clinton’s window of opportunity to clinch the nomination.

If she gets her way, Ms Pelosi’s job could become even more challenging. Although the public appears to have as much disdain for Congress as it does for Mr Bush, perhaps even more, Democrats could win between five and 10 seats this year.

This would increase the potential for clashes between the liberal wing of the Democratic party and the so-called “Blue Dogs”, moderate and conservative Democrats from the south whose views on issues ranging from gun control to abortion rights often diverge from those of the party’s base.

“A drawback [to winning more seats] is now they will have a bigger tent to have to satisfy and settle, and it becomes more of a challenge keeping everyone happy,” says David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.

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