Nancy Pelosi put down a Democratic rebellion and battled Trump in a tough but triumphant week. Now comes the hard part

Key Points
  • Nancy Pelosi is all but assured to become the next House speaker as she reaches deals with fellow Democrats.
  • As a heated Oval Office meeting with President Trumps shows, Pelosi will not hesitate to challenge the president on issues such as immigration and the border wall.
  • But she has shown she can be conciliatory, and said she would first pursue "unifying" legislation when Democrats take the majority next month.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. walks out of the West Wing to speak to members of the media outside of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, following a meeting with President Donald Trump. 
Andrew Harnik | AP

Even for a former House speaker who moved some of the most consequential bills in recent U.S. history through Congress, Nancy Pelosi navigated a gantlet this week.

The House minority leader riled up Democrats with a televised Oval Office spat with President Donald Trump over government funding Tuesday. She rejected his demand for border wall money and goaded him about a "Trump shutdown." Pelosi told the president not to "characterize the strength" she brings to talks after House Democrats' gain of 40 seats and a majority in November's midterms. Her day was captured in a viral image of her leaving the White House, wrapped in a red coat and putting sunglasses on a smiling face.

Pelosi then made the latest in a series of deals to hold off rebellion in her own ranks Wednesday. She and House Democrats who threatened to block her bid to reclaim the speaker's gavel in January reached an agreement to limit her speakership to four more years. After she effectively wrapped up the leadership race, Pelosi threw four fingers up to reporters Thursday — signifying the number of years she hopes to lead the House.

Trump, Pelosi & Schumer have very public spat at White House

The two consequential battles, both with the president and within her own caucus, were just a preview of the fights to come for Pelosi, who will be 82 in four years. Beyond the potential partial government shutdown next week, she is poised to take the speaker's gavel in the new year, where she will have to balance policy priorities and governance while contending with growing calls within the Democratic House membership to ruthlessly investigate and even impeach Trump.

Pelosi's new political reality was hard-earned. She spent the midterm campaign getting clobbered by Trump, Republican super PACs and both GOP and Democratic House candidates. Many in her own party called for newer, younger leadership. Despite the criticism, Democrats cruised to a House majority, and Pelosi maneuvered through opponents to ascend to the pinnacle of her power once again.

Democrats will gain a key lever of power next month as Republicans hold the Senate and an unpopular GOP president sits in the White House. To a national television audience, Pelosi showed on Tuesday that as speaker she would likely challenge Trump on immigration and the border wall. She will also take him head on over GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and push for more environmental and labor protections in his North American Free Trade Agreement overhaul.

The Trump balance

But she has tried not to appear too extreme ahead of a 2020 election in which Democrats will aim to keep the House and reclaim the White House. Pelosi has cast the early House Democratic agenda not as one of resistance to Trump, but rather as a push for common sense, noncontroversial solutions.

At a news conference Thursday, a reporter asked Pelosi what "repercussions" Trump should face after federal prosecutors implicated him in campaign finance crimes committed by his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. She briefly noted that the allegations came from the Justice Department and not special counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has slammed. But Pelosi did not take the bait on impeachment or any other possible backlash for the president.

"From our standpoint, what we're interested in is meeting the needs of America's working families," she said. "To spend our time lowering health-care costs by reducing the cost of prescription drugs, increasing paychecks by building infrastructure of America. Both of those things are things that the president said he wanted to do during the campaign. So this is common ground."

Even before drug costs and infrastructure, Democrats want to move quickly on their bill designed to stamp out corruption and money in politics, Pelosi said. Americans broadly support limiting money in politics. She stressed that the party would push for proposals "starting with those that are the most unifying and have the broadest support in the public."

Of course, not every House Democratic initiative will come without controversy. The House Ways and Means Committee will likely "take the first steps" to acquire Trump's tax returns — an effort the president will surely fight. Pelosi said Thursday that she sees "popular demand" for Congress to seek the documents.

Trump debates with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over a border wall

The party has also pledged to push for a $15 per hour minimum wage, a measure championed by labor activists. The effort will spark resistance within the White House, the Senate and powerful interest groups.

Pelosi's comments this week showed a desire to alternately jab and pacify Trump. On Tuesday, she helped to provoke Trump into saying he would be "proud" to shut down the government over border security. On Thursday, she said she told Trump that "I prayed for him" as a shutdown looms after the Dec. 21 deadline to fund the government.

"He said, 'That's news. Go tell the press.' So I am," she said of the Tuesday interaction with the president.

Term limits and fresh faces

While Democrats now have more leverage than at any point yet in the Trump administration, Pelosi's ascension comes with risks. Some House Democrats worried that her agreement to set an end to her tenure as speaker could damage her negotiating power.

She downplayed potential problems this week. In a statement Wednesday, Pelosi said she "made it clear" over that summer that she sees herself "as a bridge to the next generation of leaders."

"That's a long time," she then said Thursday about the potential for four years as speaker.

Pelosi also has to work through an array of viewpoints in her caucus. Even as centrist Democrats won numerous red-leaning districts in November to propel the party to a House majority, a group of young, liberal candidates won in blue districts to jolt the party's left wing.

The resistance to Pelosi's leadership came from the center rather than the left. Still, she has taken care to appease both groups.

While also pushing for her own goals to address climate change, Pelosi met the demands of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and environmental activists in pledging to restart a select committee on the issue. Aside from the deal on her tenure, Pelosi also struck an agreement with some of the more moderate House Democrats to make rules changes designed to encourage bipartisan lawmaking.

The deal helped her to get more lawmakers behind her bid for speaker. She earned the Democratic nomination to become speaker by a 203-32 margin last month, but she still needs to secure the post in a House floor vote in January. She needs 218 votes in the House, where Democrats will hold at least 235 seats.

Balancing the varied concerns within the Democratic caucus could prove critical to Pelosi's second stint as speaker lasting more than two years. How she and her party handle opposing Trump will also help to determine whether a Democrat can win the White House in 2020.

For now, Pelosi and Democratic leaders appear likely to exercise caution on calls to impeach Trump. They worry an aggressive approach could alienate the moderate and independent voters they will need in two years. Of course, their calculus could change depending on what Mueller reveals in his ongoing Russia investigation.

Regardless, the House Democratic leader made it clear this week that she would not shy from jabbing Trump when she finds it appropriate. After she publicly ribbed the president on Tuesday, she dug in later with private comments to House Democrats.

"It's like a manhood thing for him," she said, according to an aide in the room. "As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing."

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.