House Speaker Pelosi's leadership of the House Democratic Caucus might not be in "chaos" -- as Minority Leader Boehner buoyantly sought to describe it last week -- but she certainly has hit a rough patch just as she is trying to scrape together votes for healthcare reform.
Last week's threatened Democratic defections in support of a planned GOP resolution concerning New York Rep. Charles Rangel's ethical problems, a mini-insurrection over who should take over Rangel's Ways and Means Committee gavel, and Pelosi's weirdly detached admission to being left out of the loop about harassment charges against Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., left even some House Democrats wincing.
All of this did little to soothe the nerves of Caucus members already jittery over predictions of a Democratic free-fall in the upcoming midterm elections. It's a fear described by one senior House Democrat as "palpable and pervasive."
A bad week? Pelosi acknowledged as much herself at her weekly briefing Thursday when asked if she felt like she was now leading "a party in crisis."
"Some of the issues that you reference in terms of the issues that transpired in the last few days, they are behind us," she said.
But the week's events represented a highly visible -- if not embarrassing -- bit of unraveling of the cohesion within the Democratic Caucus that Pelosi has, for the most part, tightly controlled since taking the speaker's gavel in 2007.
On a more personal level, the week also revealed a crack in the veneer of a speaker long described as a detail-driven micromanager.
It seemed odd to hear Pelosi claim that she had been unaware until Wednesday of harassment allegations by a staffer against Massa -- given that her aides and Majority Leader Hoyer knew of them in early February.
"Because, you know what? This is rumor city. Every single day there are rumors; I have a job to do and not to be the receiver of rumors," she said.
All of this has come as Pelosi is trying to drive home the toughest vote she as speaker may ever have to corral -- passing healthcare reform in the next couple of weeks.
"The worst thing for Pelosi right now is to be seen as faltering, or weakening," said Ross Baker, a congressional expert and professor at Rutgers University.
Coming up with the 217 votes she needs for passage clearly won't be easy, given that all House Republicans will likely vote against the bill.
"This is a great moment ... for that reason, you've got to cut her a little slack," suggested Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., president of the House Democratic freshman class. He said Pelosi has been "focused like a laser" in getting healthcare reform passed.
Two other House members offer another reason: They say Pelosi has also been distracted and upset by the unexpected death of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who she regarded as among her closest friends and advisers in Congress.
The tough math she faces on health care requires finding roughly three dozen Democrats who are willing to switch their previous "no" votes on the House's already passed version.
That's about the number needed to make up for lost votes because of members' mood swings since that earlier vote, and opposition to the Senate's language on federal funding for abortion.
But further complicating her efforts, say several House members, is a rising animosity within the Caucus toward a perceived lack of sympathy from Pelosi and other House members from relatively safe districts in California -- and who hold so many key chairmanships and others leadership posts -- to the election fears of their colleagues from other states.
"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," said one House Democrat.
The Californians cited most frequently -- and angrily -- are Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, both with key roles in healthcare legislation. But also mentioned are Ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, Rep. Anna Eshoo, Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra.
"She seems to only be listening to this small cadre, and the rank and file are expected to simply fall in line," complained a senior Democrat; he said this is contributing to Caucus animosity over the prospect of being asked once again to walk the plank on a healthcare bill, after already passing a bill last year, on top of climate legislation establishing a cap-and-trade emissions program.
This California-related blowback was one of the reasons -- though certainly not the only one -- for the mini-uprising and backlash over Rep. Pete Stark's presumed ascension to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, following Rangel's announcement he was temporarily stepping down, says one member.
Becerra and other members of Pelosi's leadership team initially insisted that House Democratic Caucus rules on seniority would apply -- meaning Stark would be the interim chairman.
But Stark hours later decided to step aside for Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., after a number of House members on the committee opposed his chairmanship -- citing worries the Californian's bombastic style could hurt the committee.
For Pelosi, that brouhaha had followed the embarrassing events of the day before, when a steady flow of House Democrats publicly warned they would support a Republican resolution calling for Rangel to step down from his Ways and Means chairmanship, unless Rangel did not do so himself.
The Ethics Committee had the week before announced Rangel had broken House rules by accepting trips to the Caribbean sponsored partly by corporations, and other ethics investigations continue.
By nightfall, Pelosi was meeting behind closed doors with Rangel, and by morning he announced he was temporarily stepping down from his chairmanship -- causing Republicans to drop the planned resolution.
Despite these events, none of the House Democrats who spoke privately say they are aware of any serious covert talk -- at least as things stand in March -- that Pelosi is in any danger of losing her hold on the speakership.
These Democrats -- including those not fond of Pelosi -- said they see no scenario where, if their party holds the House majority this fall, that Pelosi would not also survive as speaker, if she wanted to do so. Even, they say, if the Democratic seat losses are heavy.
Right now, no other Democrat is known to be angling for an insurgent campaign, they say. And at least within the Caucus, they say, it is widely believed that as Pelosi goes, so goes Hoyer -- so he would not be seen as an alternative to clean house.
Ross said he agrees that Pelosi is in no danger -- and that her closeness to President Obama, and efforts to get his agenda through, likely will not be forgotten by him if any battles over the speakership should emerge.
But one member also emphasized it's still early for such talk, and things could change.
"It does not feel like 1994," said the senior Democrat, referring to the year that Democrats were last swept from the House majority. "In 1994, we didn't see it coming."
"This year, we do see it coming," said the member of potentially heavy Democratic seat losses. "The challenge for Pelosi, and us, is how do we continue to move forward in a climate of fear?"
Says Boehner: "It looks like chaos on the other side of the aisle."
As for Pelosi, she says she does not feel like she is leading a party in crisis.
"No, I feel very strong," she said.
"We have been very effective in terms of passing the full Obama agenda in 2009. The House Democrats stepped up to the plate, sometimes in a bipartisan way. Sometimes we couldn't get their vote; for example, in health care. So we know when you are effective, you are a target. And any target will do."
This article appears in the March 13, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.