Nancy Pelosi tried to quash Frank Pallone five years ago in a nasty proxy war over the future of the Democratic Caucus.
Now, with Pelosi reinstalled as speaker and Pallone chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, the New Jersey Democrat has become a key ally to contain the party’s aggressive liberal surge.
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“Frank actually understands we’re the majority makers and appreciates what we bring to the table,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition who sits on the Energy and Commerce panel. “That’s very different from 10 years ago when a lot of Blue Dogs were viewed as pariahs.”
Pelosi has spoken openly about protecting the vulnerable Democrats who helped deliver the House last year. And Pallone is essentially the speaker’s enforcer at the committee, which is the first real stop for any potential action on progressive priorities like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal.
The partnership is a remarkable turnaround for two onetime opponents. In 2014, Rep. Anna Eshoo, a longtime liberal ally of the then-House minority leader, was running against the more centrist Pallone for a top committee post. Despite a public whipping effort from Pelosi, Eshoo fell short. It was a rare defeat in a bitter race that showed the limits of Pelosi’s influence.
The new Pallone-Pelosi alliance will be all the more crucial as the speaker works to corral her fractious House majority, which is increasingly split between a pack of outspoken progressive Millennials and a group of more than two dozen freshman moderates.
Pelosi praised Pallone’s “invaluable” leadership in a statement, adding, “From health care and prescription drug costs to climate and net neutrality, Chairman Pallone has forged consensus in committee and across our caucus to pass bold legislation through the House.”
Pallone described himself as a “pragmatic progressive” during an interview in his Capitol Hill office and said he and Pelosi are now in lockstep.
“For the most part, we agree,” Pallone said of Pelosi. “And I’m not sure that we disagree with a lot of what those on the left would like to see, but I think that we just realized that we don’t have the votes.”
The 30-year lawmaker, who himself boasts a largely liberal voting record, dismissed the idea that he might feel pressure from the left. Indeed, Pallone has repeatedly fended off progressive demands — dismissing a special climate panel as “not necessary,” taking on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a closed-door meeting, and rejecting a liberal push to forgo contributions from fossil fuel companies.
Democratic leaders have purposefully slow-walked the progressive plans pushed by Ocasio-Cortez and others. The subject of Medicare-for-All has received hearings in three committees — but not the Energy and Commerce panel, which also oversees health policy.
And the Green New Deal, which Pelosi dismissively called the “green dream” earlier this year, is just one of several proposals being considered by a special climate change committee that has no legislative power. Pallone’s panel is taking up a major infrastructure package that addresses climate change, but it’s more modest than the Green New Deal. The House also passed legislation in May demanding President Donald Trump keep the U.S. in the Paris climate pact, after the measure cleared Pallone’s committee.
“Frank is a fair person, a good leader, he gets consensus,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, who has served in the New Jersey delegation with Pallone for more than two decades. “But he’s not going to be forced by public opinion to move in that direction or to move in this direction.”
Progressives have mostly chosen to focus on the positive, for example celebrating the fact that Medicare-for-All received a hearing in any committee even if it was clearly meant as a way for Democratic leaders to placate liberals without forcing moderates to take a tough vote they fear could cost them their seats.
But a recent battle over an emergency spending package to address the border crisis has left liberals fuming after their priorities were ignored in the final deal. Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, even warned that his group might retaliate by taking a harder line on top Democratic priorities that come to the floor.
“I just think it’s hard to ask our caucus to help deliver votes to pass things,” Pocan (D-Wis.) said. “It’s just going to be a lot harder for us to care to help deliver votes.”
And Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the other progressive caucus co-chair, said liberals plan to put more pressure on Pallone specifically in the coming months.
“It’s very important, absolutely. That’s a committee of record on health,” Jayapal (D-Wash.) said of the need for a Medicare-for-All hearing at Energy and Commerce. “He has not committed to it yet but he’s a good chairman. I believe I can work with him to make it happen.”
Pallone, meanwhile, has purposefully chosen to focus on the things he thinks can actually pass his committee, survive the House floor and in some cases even be considered by the GOP-controlled Senate.
For the sprawling panel — which has a say in nearly every major public policy issue — that includes work on everything from lowering prescription drug prices and shoring up Obamacare to boosting pipeline safety and oversight of a recalled infant rocker.
Pallone has also made a concerted effort to work across the aisle, teaming up with the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), on legislation to curb robocalls and outlaw surprise medical bills.
And Pallone won’t rule out the possibility that Democrats may be able to strike a deal with Trump on infrastructure or prescription drugs, two areas where the president has repeatedly suggested bipartisan negotiation only to back away.
“Hope springs eternal,” Pallone said. “I do think that on prescription drugs he’s pushing Republicans in the Congress, and probably the same on the infrastructure bill. There are definitely Republicans who would like to vote for all of these things.”
Walden, for his part, said in a statement that Pallone has “a tough task keeping the socialist left at bay” and that it was “only a matter of time” before the committee held hearings on Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal.
Pallone is easily recognizable, often spotted shuffling from a committee room to the House floor with a massive stack of loosely organized papers and file folders.
Pallone is also known for his love of Native American tribes, amassing a collection of hundreds of artifacts from across the U.S. that are on display in large glass cabinets, sitting atop his desk and hung across the walls of his office.
In interviews with a half dozen Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce panel, lawmakers also praised his consensus-driven leadership style.
Pallone met with each Democratic member of his committee early on to discuss their legislative priorities. He also has regular huddles and dinners with members to stay in touch and keep them in the loop on committee action, a rarity for many other panel leaders, according to lawmakers.
“The thing that’s great about Frank is that he really engages members,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a liberal veteran who has endorsed the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All.
And while Pallone hasn’t been in the spotlight like other Democratic chairmen aggressively pursuing investigations into Trump, his panel has its own series of ongoing probes into the administration. A top Environmental Protection Agency official recently stepped down over ethics issues uncovered by an Energy and Commerce investigation.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who sits on the panel, compared Pallone’s leadership to that of her husband, the late Rep. John Dingell, who wielded enormous power as the committee’s chairman for more than a decade starting in the 1980s.
“I think what’s Frank’s trying to do is legislate the way John Dingell did and earn the middle — where you can find legislation that brings the most people together,” Dingell said.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.