Nancy Pelosi and George Miller
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., depart after a House Democratic Caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Dec. 11, 2014. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON -- U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was attempting to show that despite their midterm-election loss, Democrats still have muscle in Congress. On Thursday night, it became very clear they don’t.

The most intense battle over passage of the $1.1 trillion spending bill to avoid a government shutdown may have been the one that took place inside the Democratic Party. The progressive wing was unable to force changes to a bill it despised. And even an aggressive push by Pelosi, long considered an exceptionally effective whip, could not win edits to or block passage of the bill.

When the new Congress convenes in January, Democrats will be even fewer in number. It will be harder for them to influence the content of legislation. Their only backstop becomes President Barack Obama, who publicly sided with House Speaker John Boehner Thursday. The question is whether congressional Democrats will have any real leverage at all.

For years, the Democrats managed to keep their internal discontent below the surface. Liberal congressional Democrats have grumbled about whether the president was doing enough to advance their priorities. The rank and file in the House had bristled about Pelosi’s failed game plan to get Democrats back in the majority. In this year’s midterm, Democrats lost 15 seats in the House.

But, compared with Republicans -- who for four years have been openly fighting a civil war between the GOP establishment and the tea party -- Democrats looked harmonious. That was until Thursday night, when Pelosi tried to kill the spending bill only to find her biggest opponent was the president from her own party, as noted by the New York Times.

The White House came out strongly in support of the legislation. Obama made phone calls to Democrats urging passage, even as Pelosi publicly disparaged the bill and tried to rally her members to oppose it. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough traveled to the Capitol to make the president’s pitch in person.

Pelosi wasn’t buying the White House’s apparent view that Democrats had to support the spending bill or risk being blamed for a government shutdown. In her view, the Democrats held cards they weren’t playing. As pointed out by VOA News, the bill negotiated by Republicans and Democrats included provisions that rolled back regulations on a handful of big banks that were enacted in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms. Liberal Democrats revolted, saying they couldn’t vote for the bill with those provisions, as reported by the Sun in Baltimore.

It was clear from the beginning that Democrats were going to be needed in the House to pass the bill. And leadership saw a chance to get the Dodd-Frank provisions removed -- and an opportunity to show that Democrats still matter.

Pelosi began using the word “leverage” a lot more. “We have leverage if they don’t have the votes,” Pelosi told Roll Call last week.

She continued to make her leverage argument as the bill fell apart. “It is clear from this recess on the floor that the Republicans don’t have enough votes to pass the Cromnibus,” she wrote to members Thursday. “This increases our leverage to get two offensive provisions of the bill removed: the bank bailout and big money for campaigns provision. However you decide to vote in the end, I thank those who continue to give us leverage to improve the bill.”

But Republicans were holding strong: Dodd-Frank changes were not coming out of the legislation.

The alternative they offered was a three-month continuing resolution. And that would mean that in March when government funding expired again, Republicans would be in total control of Congress.

“Democrats decided this was better than the alternative,” a senior Democratic aide said. “You had Pelosi saying, ‘We have leverage, we have leverage,’ even though it was clear they weren’t going to take out these provisions.”

Democrats talked hopefully about how much power they retained. “We had some leverage in putting this over the top,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “The government would have shut down tonight if it weren’t for Democratic votes.”

“Leverage has to be used strategically and then brought to bear where it has influence,” Connolly added. “I think the positive votes for tonight show Democrats actually had some leverage. My friends who were organizing a no vote thought they also had leverage in calling the Republican bluff. I disagree. I don’t think there was a bluff to be called.”

In the end, it was Boehner who called Pelosi's bluff, putting the bill on the floor and watching as she failed to kill it. A senior leadership aide argued that Pelosi had given up the fight by then.

“We tried to keep leverage as long as possible,” said a senior leadership aide. “When it was clear they weren’t going to remove the two provisions, the requisite Democrats supported it.” The aide added, “She wasn’t going to take down the bill, she wasn’t going to shut down the government over it.”

However bitter she may be in private, Pelosi remained optimistic in public, telling her members in a letter Friday that they will be able to work together going forward, including backstopping the president.

The White House was also cheery, noting its victory but also paying respects to the minority leader.

“There is always going to be a little second-guessing about how this played out, but given how the vote played out at 9:45 last night, that’s a pretty strong endorsement of the White House legislative strategy,” White House representative Josh Earnest said Friday.

“This strong working relationship [with Pelosi] can be the effective, working relationship that we’ve had over the last six years,” Earnest said.

And their ability to work together may be crucial if congressional Republicans start passing legislation that Obama will inevitably veto -- such as repealing the Affordable Care Act or undoing environmental protection standards. Democrats will need to hang together to stop a veto override.

“Should the President threaten a veto, the votes will be here in the House to sustain it,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday.

That is, unless Obama decides to circumvent his own party and just find ways to negotiate with Republicans to pass legislation he’s willing to swallow.