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Pelosi comes out a loser -- and a winner -- in battle over spending bill

SAN FRANCISCO -- ``Win some, lose some'' may be the ancient mantra of politics, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi managed to do both in the same vote on a compromise budget agreement early Friday.

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John Wildermuth
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- ``Win some, lose some'' may be the ancient mantra of politics, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi managed to do both in the same vote on a compromise budget agreement early Friday.

Predictably, the result angered plenty of Democrats and left Pelosi as a target of both the right and the left.

In the current political environment, ``it's impossible for any (Democratic) leader to emerge unscathed from any battle in Washington,'' said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University.

When the House voted 240-186 to approve a budget bill that did not include protection for ``Dreamers,'' young people who came to the country as children and are here illegally, Pelosi was on the losing side.

The San Francisco congresswoman not only voted against the bill, but on Wednesday gave a record eight-hour speech on the floor of the House, calling on GOP Speaker Paul Ryan to promise a vote on renewal of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily protects those young people from deportation.

But Pelosi also helped craft the bipartisan compromise bill that passed Friday, providing support for several Democratic priorities, including billions in disaster relief funding, 10 years of funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, $7 billion for community health centers, and support for a variety of other social programs.

Pelosi described the compromise Thursday as ``a good bill'' but said she'd refuse to support it unless Ryan guaranteed he would bring immigration up for a vote.

Pelosi took heat for her efforts to walk a middle path. Progressive groups and even some fellow Democrats argued that party leaders had not done enough to push for Dreamer legislation and had bungled their chance to use the leverage of the must-pass budget agreement to force Republicans to deal or face the possibility of a long government shutdown.

``There's a palpable level of frustration that too many Democrats aren't willing to resist Donald Trump and fight him every step of the way,'' said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the progressive Democracy for America group. He called for Democrats to follow the example of Republicans in 2010, when they fought against President Barack Obama's policies and won 63 Democratic seats to take control of the House. ``If you stick to your guns and stand up for what you believe, the voters will reward you.''

That disapproval goes with ongoing talk about ousting Pelosi as the Democratic leader, arguing that the party needs new, younger leadership and that the 77-year-old Pelosi, with her liberal, San Francisco roots, has become a lightning rod for GOP attacks.

In an upcoming Pennsylvania special congressional election, Republicans have filled the airwaves with attacks on Pelosi, saying that Democrat Conor Lamb would become ``one of Nancy Pelosi's sheep'' if elected.

Lamb, a first-time candidate, has already promised he would not vote for Pelosi as Democratic House leader if he's elected.

Pelosi is a victim of outsize expectations about what House Democrats actually could do for Dreamers, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles.

``The problem is that the Democrats in Congress allowed expectations to grow above what they could accomplish,'' he said. ``By suggesting they had more power than they did, they weren't able to celebrate what they did get.''

It's easy for Democrats, especially in the Bay Area, to forget that not every state is California. For Democrats in red or purple states, the budget vote was always going to be a tough one.

``It's not that those Democrats didn't want to vote for (the Dreamers), but they didn't want to shut down the government to do it,'' Sonenshein said.

As the party leader in the House, Pelosi not only has to try to satisfy all her members, but also has to take a strategic view that might not always be popular with Democrats hungry for instant victories.

``There's an unease about what the central message of Democrats should be, beyond opposition to everything Trump does,'' said McCuan, the Sonoma State professor. ``That's a compelling political message, but it's not a compelling governing message.''

Pelosi's ultimate goal has to be picking up the 24 seats in November that are needed to give Democrats control of the House.

``Since World War II, the average (midterm election) loss for the party in power has been 18 seats, so the Democrats are right there,'' McCuan said. For Pelosi, ``everything has to be, 'Let's not mess up getting there.'''

That can mean not always pushing Democrats to take unpopular votes that could hurt them in November. When Pelosi announced she was voting against the budget bill, she made it clear, at least publicly, that other members still should vote their conscience.

That meant that even in California opposition to the budget agreement wasn't unanimous.

Most of the 39 Democrats in the California delegation followed Pelosi in opposing the Dreamer-less budget deal. But of the eight who voted in favor, it was politics and local concerns that likely guided their decisions.

Reps. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert and Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara are in swing districts targeted by Republican leaders this year. Reps. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove, Jim Costa of Fresno and Jerry McNerney of Stockton all represent heavily agricultural districts that include plenty of Republicans and conservatives.

The two Bay Area Democrats who backed the budget deal, Reps. Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Mike Thompson of St. Helena, both cited the disaster relief money for their fire-stricken communities as the reason for their votes.

``Local leaders have informed me that without this disaster relief, our fire communities could go into a financial tail spin,'' Thompson said in a statement.

But Pelosi may turn out to be a winner after all. Her historic Wednesday speech may provide a template for an agreement -- or at least a long-awaited discussion -- on the fate of the Dreamers.

The promise by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to hold a full debate and vote on a Dreamer bill could become the biggest benefit of the budget agreement for Democrats, Sonenshein said.

``Democrats won that agreement for a debate on DACA, which is something that has never happened,'' he said. ``Pelosi's speech attracted attention and that should energize the debate, which will sound a lot like her speech, with example after example of the people affected. ... Democrats need to ask Republicans why they want to throw out of the country someone who was valedictorian at her high school and is looking to join the Marines.''

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