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Ruling with an iron fist & an iron glove?

Nancy Pelosi’s Lesson in Power for House Republicans

GOP leader Kevin McCarthy will need to enforce the unity she managed with Democrats.

By The Editorial Board, WSJ

Nov. 17, 2022 6:46 pm ET

The saying goes that Nancy Pelosi ruled the House of Representatives with an iron fist in a velvet glove, but it was more like an iron fist in an iron glove. After two decades of corralling Democrats, often against their will, Speaker Pelosi says she’ll return to the rank and file next year. Republicans who disagree with Mrs. Pelosi on practically everything can still learn from her how to effectively wield power.

Mrs. Pelosi came to Washington to pass laws and influence policy, not because she wanted to be a social-media influencer or get a retirement gig as a TV pundit. When Democrats were devising ObamaCare, she insisted that they go big, mocking anything less as “Kiddie Care.”

Then she wrangled votes and, although 34 House Democrats defected, Mrs. Pelosi passed the bill. What followed in the 2010 election was a “shellacking,” in President Obama’s word, that cost Democrats 63 House seats and Mrs. Pelosi the speakership.

She didn’t win the gavel back for eight years, but ObamaCare remains the law, and Mrs. Pelosi sounds as if she has no regrets. She also bragged Thursday about passing President Biden’s infrastructure bill, which required staring down progressives who wanted to pair it with trillions in new social spending. She then passed the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act. Despite a historically slim majority of 222 seats, Mrs. Pelosi kept Democrats in line when it mattered.

At her best, Mrs. Pelosi believes in American freedom and has no illusions about U.S. adversaries. This year she visited Ukraine and Taiwan, and she didn’t back down from the latter trip despite heavy pressure from China.

At her worst, Mrs. Pelosi is a petty partisan. Recall the 2020 State of the Union, when she tore up President Trump’s speech while he was standing in front of her. She put allies like Rep. Adam Schiff in charge of the Intelligence Committee and let him make wild claims about Trump-Russia collusion when it was politically useful. She insisted on impeaching Mr. Trump twice, though both times it strengthened him with GOP partisans.

Yet there’s no denying that Mrs. Pelosi has been an effective House leader, the most powerful Speaker in decades. Were Republicans paying attention? In last week’s elections, the GOP regained the House, but its new majority will be as small as Mrs. Pelosi’s current one. The narrow margin next year calls for a strong Speaker and Republican unity. If the GOP wants to convince the electorate to give it a real mandate in 2024, it needs to show it can govern.

Instead the old circular firing squad may be forming. This week Kevin McCarthy won a party vote to be nominated as Speaker, 188-31, but he needs 218 votes in January. Republicans also agreed to dilute the Speaker’s control over the Steering Committee that decides which lawmakers get assigned to which committees and who gets to be a chairman. This might be a necessary concession at the moment, but if a weak Speaker lacks the tools to pass needed bills, the result will be chaos and angry voters.

Speaker John Boehner resigned in 2015 amid a fight over whether Republicans should try to defund Planned Parenthood by passing a continuing resolution that would have died in the Senate or on President Obama’s desk. The GOP then held 247 seats.

Mr. McCarthy’s majority will be 222 at most. That number was enough for Mrs. Pelosi to avoid pointless brinkmanship over the past two years and pass an ambitious agenda for Mr. Biden. Mr. McCarthy and Republicans could learn from the example.

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