Near finish line, Pelosi stumbles

In the past few weeks, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has referred to Hamas as a “humanitarian organization,” likened the thousands of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border to the “baby Jesus” and flouted House etiquette by heckling a GOP member.

When Republicans talk that way, it’s a story. Not with Pelosi. “Not a single one of these stories has really perforated into any mainstream press,” spokesman Drew Hammill chided me.

Too true. Yet these episodes highlight Pelosi’s precarious perch atop a party veering ever leftward, like the House GOP seen in a rearview mirror.

When CNN’s Candy Crowley asked Pelosi whether Israel should be doing more to protect civilians in Gaza, Pelosi said that Hamas initiated the conflict and that Washington must support Israel’s Iron Dome and the Palestinians. “And we have to confer with the Qataris, who have told me over and over again that Hamas is a humanitarian organization,” Pelosi continued. When Crowley asked whether Pelosi considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, Pelosi agreed — but with that sour look I see when she spies me in a press scrum.

Hammill told me Crowley cut off Pelosi before she could advocate getting the Qataris to put pressure on Hamas.

But why repeat the “humanitarian” canard?

I asked Stanford University political science professor Bruce Cain, who thinks the Hamas comment could dent Pelosi’s ability to raise money if donors start to believe she is trying “to figure out a way to please two constituencies in the party” — traditional pro-Israel Democrats and a growing rump of pro-Palestinian liberals. (The donor base understands that articulating positions isn’t Pelosi’s forte. She is a hand at the inside game.)

The “baby Jesus”? Pelosi maintains that she’s merely following the lead of Catholic bishops who point out that Jesus was a refugee. To me, it’s revolting to watch Pelosi wave her Catholic card and then ditch it like a dirty rag when the Obama administration moves to force religious dissenters to subsidize contraception contrary to their faith.

On Friday, before the GOP-led House passed its border bill, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., chastised Democrats for not passing a big immigration bill when they controlled the White House, Senate and House in 2009 and 2010. He’s right. Despite candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to pass immigration reform during his first year in office, it didn’t happen. House Democrats passed the DREAM Act — for undocumented immigrants brought here as children — but only as a lame-duck feint played after Dems lost the House in November 2010.

Pelosi breached protocol by arguing with Marino. Later, her office released a statement that hailed House Dems for “the courage to pass the DREAM Act” and support comprehensive immigration reform. Her team also said Pelosi accepted Marino’s apology. In San Francisco on Wednesday, Marino denied he had apologized.

Last week, he tweeted that Pelosi had called him an “insignificant person.” Twice. Team Pelosi won’t answer questions about it.

“I came from a low-middle-class family,” Marino told me. If anyone should apologize, it’s Pelosi to Marino’s constituents.

Cain thinks Pelosi will survive the public spat because leaders tend to get in trouble for their usual MO, not “the unusual lapse.”

But is it an unusual lapse? As Cain also observed, “immigration is as difficult for the Democrats as it is for the Republicans.”

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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