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Anatomy of a power play: How 9 House Dems cut their deal with Pelosi

Josh Gottheimer had been in the political wilderness for 10 days before he was finally summoned by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cut a deal.

The de facto leader of a rebellious group of party moderates had signaled for weeks that he had the votes to upend Pelosi’s carefully laid legislative plans and wasn’t going to go quietly this time. Gottheimer and eight allies indicated, privately and then very publicly, that they wanted an immediate vote on the Senate’s infrastructure bill and would tank the budget if they didn’t get their way.

On Tuesday, Gottheimer and his group pulled off what just days ago seemed unimaginable — Pelosi praised them for their “enthusiasm” in a public statement while announcing her commitment to pass the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

“Not everybody loves you every day, but when you sit and work with both sides, you tend to take body blows from both sides,” Gottheimer said in an interview about his tactics. “If it’s for the good of the country, making progress and doing what’s right for the people we represent, that’s my job.”

Yet the durability of the centrists’ victory remains up for debate. The two-day budget showdown revealed the struggles of such a disparate bloc of Democrats — a mix of fiscal and social conservatives, vulnerable “frontliners” and some who hold deep blue seats — as they seek to maximize their influence.

While Gottheimer and his group celebrate the concession they got on infrastructure, they face a bigger question: whether they expended too much political capital over a calendar fight, when a much bigger debate over the size and scope of the party’s social spending package is yet to come this fall.

Just 24 hours before the vote, no one on the Hill knew how it would end.

Pelosi, not one to respond well to demands from her rank and file, was not in a rush. The Californian was hosting a who’s who of Democratic luminaries at her annual Napa fundraiser over the weekend as members of her leadership team were dispatched to try to reason with the moderates.

But in a private leadership call Sunday afternoon with just Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, it became apparent that the longtime Democratic leadership trio had a problem on their hands.

While Pelosi had been in touch with other centrists in Gottheimer’s group, it had been more than a week since she and the New Jersey Democrat had had a conversation. During the Sunday leadership call, Hoyer — who had been in close contact with the rebels for many days — suggested it was time for the speaker to directly engage Gottheimer, despite his rabble-rousing reputation that had long alienated many in the caucus.

By Monday night, Pelosi, Hoyer and the rest of her leadership team were engaged in a flurry of negotiations with Gottheimer and the other moderates. Such attention, in many ways, was precisely what the moderates had wanted in the first place.

Those efforts, however, took far longer than everyone expected, with Gottheimer and another senior centrist, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), running into some disagreements within their own ad hoc group about how to end the standoff. While the group had a singular public demand — an immediate vote on the Senate infrastructure bill — several of its members were individually approaching leadership in private with their own wants and requests, complicating the negotiations.

Moderates walked away from the standoff Tuesday declaring victory, with a promise to be included in the drafting of the $3.5 trillion social spending package as well as a date certain for an infrastructure vote. Pelosi and her allies, meanwhile, argue that she has not wavered from her previous strategy.

“A win?” Pelosi responded Tuesday when asked whether Gottheimer had scored a significant victory. “We’re not talking about a win. We’re talking about passing a rule.”

Progressives, who were largely silent amid the moderates’ maneuver in the moment, said afterward that Pelosi had simply reiterated her earlier plans to attempt to pass both massive bills by the end of September. And they said their nearly 100-member caucus would only back the Senate infrastructure deal after passing the broader party-line spending bill.

“I don’t consider them concessions,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said of the demands granted to the centrists.

“The fact that they’re gonna end up supporting what they said they wouldn’t without actually getting what they wanted, I think sets them up for failure in negotiations in the future,” she added.

Unlike House liberals, most of whom align with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, moderates are more scattered across the caucus. Their various wings — the Blue Dogs, the New Democrats and the Problem Solvers — usually spend more time arguing over the semantic differences between the groups than they do joining together to force leadership’s hand.

For instance, the larger New Democrat Coalition fully backed the speaker’s approach while key members of the other two held out.

“I think a lot of this was probably unnecessary. We could have kept the process moving forward, but that’s called legislating,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a senior member of the New Democrats.

Gottheimer’s allies included mostly members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, though they came together loosely and organized in general by word of mouth amid their frustrations with Pelosi’s dual-track strategy.

Another key moderate, Blue Dog co-leader Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), agreed with them and had been working with leadership behind the scenes. But Murphy didn’t go public until a Monday night op-ed, adding another complication to the already strained negotiations.

Murphy had sent a set of proposals to Democratic leadership and the White House a week earlier. Those included a late-September timeline for the infrastructure bill and certain reassurances for the $3.5 trillion spending package, which the centrists ultimately received.

Yet Murphy said those early ideas were ignored, and she began drafting her op-ed — which called her own party’s strategy “misguided” — shortly after a tense call from President Joe Biden himself on Sunday night, according to people familiar with the discussions.

“I can’t explain why the serious negotiations didn’t happen until the eleventh hour,” Murphy said in an interview Tuesday, after backing the budget on the floor. “I always find that people who wait until the very last minute to do their homework, let’s just say they end up staying up very late.”

Murphy is among several Democrats who hope to see a more involved White House during the next, and likely more intense, round of negotiations on the $3.5 trillion bill.

Biden’s call to Murphy was one of several ways that senior Democrats had discussed to pressure their members to support the budget vote. Another idea was having Gottheimer’s onetime boss former President Bill Clinton make calls, although sources close to the 46-year-old centrist insist that never happened.

One way top Democrats did try to turn the screw was through fundraising, with House Democratic Campaign Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and his staff issuing veiled warnings about the campaign arm’s financial support if moderates followed through on their threats.

But while Gottheimer had always wanted a deal, he at times found it difficult to lock down all eight other members of his motley group.

Late Monday, Pelosi and Gottheimer had finally come to an agreement on a timeline, setting the date of Sept. 28 to vote on the Senate bill, when another one of the moderates balked. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) insisted the deadline for a vote be moved up a full week, providing distance from when the House would likely vote on the massive social spending deal, according to people familiar with the talks.

As the clock ticked past midnight, the group of negotiators decided to hit pause as it became clear they wouldn’t reach an agreement. But just hours later, Pelosi and Gottheimer resumed talks with an early morning call Tuesday.

Later that morning, Gottheimer’s group was again on the cusp of announcing a deal, only to be held up again at the last minute by members of their own group who demanded stronger language on the timeline. That final change ended up securing all nine votes.

In the end, Gottheimer and Cuellar locked down the votes of every Democrat who signed their letter.

Asked how he and Gottheimer convinced the rest of the moderates, Cuellar — who worked closely with his long-time ally Clyburn — replied: “With a lot of work.”

“We got a date to vote on this, on the 27th. We agreed that we’re going to be voting, same with the Senate Democrats. So I think we got everything,” Cuellar said.

Nicholas Wu and Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.

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