Nancy Pelosi's California Gang

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=House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s iron grip on the House of Representatives may be slipping. The latest whip count shows she has fewer than 200 hard votes to pass the Senate health care bill that President Obama is insisting on. She needs 216 votes.

Several episodes last week have combined to make Speaker Pelosi’s job difficult. She was forced to back down from her support of embattled Rep. Charles Rangel as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee when faced with threats by her own members that they would side with Republicans in a motion against Mr. Rangel. She next tried to install Rep. Pete Stark, a fellow Californian, as a Rangel replacement but was forced to retreat when Committee members revolted. Then she ended the week by claiming she had no knowledge of sexual harassment charges against now-resigned Rep. Eric Massa of New York, even though her deputies had known about them for a month.

Ms. Pelosi’s miscues have rattled the Democratic caucus and led to what Democratic staffers say is an “every man for himself attitude” among many of their bosses. Ms. Pelosi and her aides seem intent on passing health care with little consideration of the reelection challenges that Democratic members face back home. More and more Democratic backbenchers are coming to the conclusion that the Democratic leadership is not looking out for the interests of those who voted them into power.

“Across the caucus, there is growing dissatisfaction and resentment — not so much directed at Pelosi — but with her cadre of California liberals seen as continually driving her House agenda, regardless of the hits the rest of us will have to take,” one House Democrat told National Journal. “She seems to only be listening to this small cadre, and the rank and file are expected to simply fall in line,” complains another Democrat.

Speaker Pelosi swats away suggestions she is losing control of her members. “I feel very strong,” she insisted to reporters. But the health care vote is an acid test for her. The Democratic caucus is filled with members who want a health care bill but are reluctant to follow their Speaker’s lead. If she fails to get the votes, it may lead to a spreading concern that the House leadership can’t govern. The last time that happened was in 2006, and Republicans soon lost their majority.

A similar crisis of governance in the House occurred in 1994, when Democrats failed to pass a crime bill on the floor despite an overwhelming majority. Republicans took control of the House that November. Democrats worry that this year’s health care bill could become the equivalent of the crime-bill debacle. That’s why they are working hard to round up health care votes, but so far with limited success.

‘John Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’

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