Most news accounts of budget negotiations between the White House and Congress focus on two men: President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. The man who ran on a platform of "balanced" deficit reduction, and the man who represents the party that refuses to increase taxes on high earners.
But there's a third agent, quietly keeping the negotiating center of gravity in Democrats' comfort zone.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will file what's known as a discharge petition -- a procedural tool that will increase pressure on Republicans to allow Bush tax cuts for top earners to expire. If 218 members sign the petition, legislation to permanently extend middle-income tax cuts will get a vote, and Republicans will be on the spot. Leadership aides expect nearly every Democrat will put pen to paper in support of it, and then push squishy Republicans to break with leadership and sign it as well.
That reflects half of Pelosi's role. The other half is subtler. As the controller of an overwhelming number of Democratic votes, she's there to warn all negotiators, including Obama himself, not to cut a bad deal.
"Leader Pelosi is playing offense on the middle class tax cuts bill," says a House Democratic leadership aide. "She's unifying the House Democrats around an action they can all support, while also reminding all the negotiators at the table that you can't reach a deal without changes in tax rates on the wealthy."
That's as much a warning to Obama as it is to Boehner. Until recently Obama had left himself enough wiggle room to accept a deal that would raise revenue from top earners by limiting their deductions instead of increasing their income tax rates.
Because Senate Democrats passed legislation in August to permanently extend middle-income tax cuts, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have been sidelined for the moment by dint of circumstance.
Pelosi's role, in effect, is to make sure the Senate bill comes up for a vote in the House, ideally unchanged, so it can go straight to Obama's desk for a signature. Most recently, she rejected House Republicans' counteroffer to Obama, which would include benefit cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
"Instead of wasting the public's time, House Republicans should allow a vote on the Senate-passed middle income tax cuts to strengthen middle class families, spur growth in our economy, provide certainty to small businesses, and create jobs," Pelosi said. "Democrats are filing a discharge petition, to force a vote on extending the middle income tax cut, on Tuesday at noon. There's no time to waste."
But she also has to put gentler pressure on members of her own party.
"The President has said: 'pass the middle income tax cut,'" Pelosi reminded reporters at a press availability last week. Such reminders are common at Pelosi news conferences. But they're directed at the White House as much as they are the general public.