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‘She’s not one to bluff’: How Pelosi won the shutdown battle

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi worked behind the scenes to keep her caucus in line — even as some of her own members grew skittish about the shutdown’s impacts on constituents. | M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

Two months ago, Nancy Pelosi was battling an internal Democratic rebellion trying to bar her from the speakership.

Pelosi faced doubts over whether she was the right person to lead the new Democratic majority, despite shepherding her party to victory on Election Day, and some colleagues demanded she step down after 16 years in power.

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Now — just weeks after reclaiming the speaker’s gavel — the California Democrat has already bested President Donald Trump in a gut-wrenching fight that may help define the 116th Congress, while strengthening her hold over rank-and-file lawmakers.

Trump surrendered to Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in astonishing fashion Friday after insisting for 35 straight days that he would never reopen the government without winning on his central 2016 campaign promise: a big, beautiful border wall between the United States and Mexico.

But just as she did with her Democratic critics weeks ago, Pelosi waited Trump out until he couldn’t take the heat anymore. Amid a wave of news stories on furloughed federal workers showing up at food banks or in unemployment lines, airports across the country facing slowdowns, thousands of IRS employees who weren’t returning to the job when ordered back without pay — or, perhaps more so, the public blaming him for the chaos – Trump wilted. Pelosi held firm.

“No one should ever underestimate the speaker, as Donald Trump has learned,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Friday.

Pelosi’s victory over Trump will cement her power as she and House Democrats flex their muscles with their newfound majority. It will have substantial implications for the relationship between the two power players as they clash on everything from the Russia investigation to immigration to health care. And it’s already endearing Pelosi with progressives who’ve long awaited a leader who could stand up to — and defeat — the party’s No. 1 enemy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Trump not only failed in his effort to secure a single penny of border wall funding; he also bowed to Pelosi’s demand to reschedule the State of the Union, a nationwide TV moment he was loath to pass up while posturing against Democrats.

Yet it wasn’t easy for her. Pelosi worked behind the scenes to keep her caucus in line — even as a small faction of her own members grew skittish about the shutdown’s impacts on constituents and privately urged her to counter a recent Trump compromise with an offer of her own.

Pelosi’s reply? Don’t give an inch and stay together, she told nervous Democrats as recently as this week. If we counter-offer Trump on the wall, we lose, Pelosi insisted. And we’re winning.

Even Republicans seemed to concede that Pelosi’s was truly Trump’s match.

“She’s not one to bluff,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, the Freedom Caucus leader and Trump ally who encouraged Trump to shut the government down in the first place.

It’s also a reminder that although polls show Trump is more popular with his base than Pelosi is with her own, Pelosi’s enormous legislative acumen — sharpened by years of arm-twisting and friendly cajoling — dwarfs the political infighting skills displayed by the ex-real-estate mogul who’s long touted himself as the one of the toughest negotiators in the world.

Donald Trump pauses during his speech in the Rose Garden

Pelosi, it turns out, drives a much tougher bargain.

“I don’t know if it’s because she’s a woman, but [Trump] certainly underestimated her,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said. “I told somebody that I don’t know what kind of nickname he will find for Nancy, but ‘Low Energy’ won’t be one of them.”

Trump himself has expressed frustrations with how the entire process played out. During a tense meeting with staff Thursday, after watching negative coverage of the shutdown highlighting insensitive comments made by his own top officials, Trump complained that “Nancy is never going to give me what I want” on the border wall, according to two people briefed on his comments.

The next day, Trump caved.

Yet Trump’s fold came at just the right time for Pelosi, who presides over a caucus filled with anxious centrists and freshmen desperate for any signs of progress that the stalemate — the longest shutdown in U.S. history — was ending. While a vast majority of her members supporter her strategy through and through, several dozen started feeling restless.

Many Democratic lawmakers were getting an earful from constituents back home who were ready to see the shutdown end, no matter who was to blame for starting it. And some members were upset that leadership canceled a scheduled recess this week, forcing them to be in Washington while postponing town halls and other events back in their districts.

During several meetings of the more pragmatic-minded New Democrats Coalition, lawmakers expressed exasperation that the Pelosi-favored hashtag “#TrumpShutdown” wasn’t enough to shield them from angry constituents back home. Other members, like freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, complained that the messaging strategy Pelosi had laid out may work for solid blue districts but wouldn’t hold water in her Republican-populated stronghold.

Even House Democrats who supported Pelosi’s “no negotiations until the government is open” stance privately agreed that the longer the shutdown dragged out, the tougher it’d be to stay unified. Democrats, the party long known for championing policies that help the poor, were worried that food stamp checks and affordable housing assistance might not be distributed in February if the standoff continued. Some even privately admitted they may have to cave to Trump’s border wall demand if their constituents continued to take financial hits.

The ultimate test for Pelosi came after Trump’s surprising gesture last Saturday to offer Dreamers three years of non-deportation status in return for border-wall funding. While Democrats just one year ago shut the government down trying to protect those very undocumented immigrants, Pelosi pre-empted Trump’s nationwide address by panning the idea entirely even before he took the podium.

That move angered some of Pelosi’s more moderate rank-and file members. They fretted that her immediate rejection of a compromise — and refusal to counter Trump’s offer — would make them look obstinate to constituents who just needed to pay their mortgages.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, a centrist Blue Dog from Oregon, publicly expressed the private fears of several rank-and-file Democrats earlier this week — that his party lost the messaging war over the weekend by flatly turning Trump down. Being seen as refusing to negotiate, no matter how unrealistic Trump’s offer was, “is not a good strategy,” Schrader said.

Other members tried to nudge Pelosi to counter Trump by gathering signatures for letters — one from the Blue Dogs and another led by several dozen Democratic freshmen — urging the California Democrat and other congressional leaders to come together and find a resolution to the deadlock.

Pelosi sprang into action and tried to calm any members’ unease. She changed the caucus’ hash tag to “#endshutdown” to keep the Democrats’ battle-cry focused on ending the damaging standoff. And she and her leadership allies began working on a package of new border security funding that would show Democrats supported such ideas, even if Trump’s wall wasn’t part of that plan.

During a closed-door meeting of House Democrats Wednesday, Pelosi defended her no-negotiating strategy.

“Understand, there is a plan. It is working for us,” Pelosi told the caucus, recounting how she and other Democrats beat back then-President George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize social security in 2005 by staying unified and sticking to a simple message, much like they were doing now. Democrats did the same when Republicans shutdown the government in 2013 in a bid to defund Obamacare, she said. They didn’t counter Republicans then, Pelosi noted —and ultimately, they won.

“So, for week-in and week-out, we had to say to our group, ‘Stick with the plan,’” Pelosi said, according to a source in the room. “And so, what we are saying is, ‘Open up government. And then we can discuss.’”

“She said the best thing to do is stand your ground and not to propose our own solution,” said one Democratic aide familiar with Pelosi’s message. “She was saying, ‘You have to let them screw the pooch on this to look good,’ that it would weaken us to offer a solution.”

Beyond that, Pelosi did one major thing Trump couldn’t: she kept the divisions in her caucus private. As an unpredictable loose cannon who changed his position on what he wanted from day to day, Trump was unable to keep Republicans unified behind his border wall demand—one they never fully embraced to begin with.

After a few weeks, many Republicans began urging Trump — in publicly and private — to re-open the government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even reportedly told him he was losing the public-relations battle over the shutdown.

Pelosi allies, meanwhile, did their best to keep protests of her strategy private. And her critics listened, a major reason for Pelosi’s success.

Pelosi also played up poll numbers showing the public blaming Trump to ease wary Democrats. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Pelosi was keenly aware that Trump was suffering far more in public opinions polls than Democrats throughout the shutdown, and the difference became more stark the longer the crisis went on.

“She was able to cite [polls] saying, ‘We’re winning the argument. This is not time to start to showing cracks,” he said.

President Trump announces deal to reopen government

Pelosi’s newfound power from the shutdown victory offers a sharp contrast from her most recent struggles. A substantial faction of Democrats in the past two years privately — or even publicly — questioned whether she’d be a liability for the party.

Pelosi, 78, has led the caucus for more than 16 years and has become a favorite foil for Republicans, many who ran TV ads against her to try to defeat Democratic opponents in the midterms. Some in the party felt she’d been around too long and wanted to new leadership in the Trump age.

That was short-lived, however. Pelosi has reclaimed her right to be called one of the most powerful speakers in recent years. And her colleagues are openly calling her a “bad ass” as they praise her efforts.

“This is phase two of her new leadership,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democratic freshman from a swing district, in a short Friday interview. “I very much respect how she has led this caucus with principle.”

The comment from Phillips is striking given that he was one of more than 30 lawmakers who called on Pelosi to do more to end the shutdown just two days ago. Now he appears to see why she held out: “I fully support, as well as just about everybody in the Democratic Caucus, to not use shutdowns as a political maneuver.”

Pelosi herself declined to take a victory lap Friday, despite being pressed by reporters several times on whether she bested Trump in this fight. Even during a public signing of the three-week stopgap bill to reopen the government, the cable news cameras hanging on her every word, Pelosi wouldn’t gloat.

“I don’t unify our caucus, our values unify us,” Pelosi told reporters. “Our unity is our power and that is maybe what the president underestimated.”

Democrats, however, haven’t been so subtle in rubbing their victory in Trump’s face. In fact, they flooded Twitter with praise for Pelosi and how she outfoxed Trump.

One tweet from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) included a picture of the cover of the president’s famous book, The Art of the Deal, with Pelosi’s image replacing Trump’s.

“I think [Pelosi] always organizes her political strategy around a moral core,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “And the core of her argument her was that you do not shut down the government of the United States over a policy difference.”

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