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Why Biden is right to share credit with Pelosi, Schumer

Periods are often defined by presidents, but when it comes to legislative breakthroughs, it's congressional leaders who often deserve the credit.
Image: Nancy Pelosi, CHuck Schumer
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hold the signed American Rescue Plan Act at the US Capitol on March 10, 2021.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

After the Senate passed the Democrats' COVID relief package, President Joe Biden offered some generous praise for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"I served in the Senate, as you all know, for many years. I've never seen anyone work as skillfully, as ably, as patiently, with determination, to deliver such a consequential piece of legislation that was so urgently needed as the American Rescue Plan. Senator Chuck Schumer, when the country needed you most, you led, Chuck, and you delivered. Neither I nor the country will ever forget that."

A few days later, once the same bill had cleared the House, Biden was again eager to share the credit.

"[House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is] the finest and most capable speaker in the history of our nation. Once again, she has led into law an historic piece of legislation that addresses a major crisis and lifts up millions of Americans."

It seems inevitable the political periods are defined by the president at office at the time, but when it comes to legislative breakthroughs, it's congressional leaders who often deserve the credit.

In the case of the American Rescue Plan, the president obviously showed effective leadership, unveiling the policy blueprint, aiming high, and helping put out fires as they arose during the legislative process. But it'd be a mistake to overlook the work of his governing partners on Capitol Hill.

Success on the COVID relief package was hardly assured. In the Senate, Schumer's margin for error simply did not exist: he needed to keep every member of his 50-member conference together, not only on the reconciliation strategy, but on each of the substantive details. It would be a foolish mistake to think it's easy to shepherd through a $1.9 trillion package that makes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) happy simultaneously. Schumer pulled it off anyway.

And then, of course, there's Pelosi, who started the year with an unexpectedly small majority, and a group of ideological factions that didn't see eye to eye. The conventional wisdom was that the Speaker would struggle and may have to temper her ambitions.

She did not.

Jonathan Bernstein noted this week, "[I]t's tempting to overlook just how easy it would have been for things to go wrong, especially in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes it all look inevitable, but it most definitely is not — as anyone who remembers the frequent internal party fights under Republican Speakers Paul Ryan or John Boehner or, for that matter, Democrat Tom Foley."

The California Democrat can add this to her list of historic successes, which already includes historic accomplishments such as passing the Affordable Care Act, which almost certainly would've failed without her.

It was 10 years ago this month when I first wrote that we tend to name buildings after leaders with records like hers. I haven't changed my mind.