By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is set to become the first female speaker of the House, shattering what she herself has described as "not a glass ceiling but a marble ceiling" in the halls of Congress.
With yesterday's Democratic victory in taking control of the House of Representatives, Pelosi will stand second in line to the presidency and rank as the nation's top elected Democrat. She will take office in January when the 110th Congress convenes and newly sworn-in members cast their votes for speaker on the House floor.
Shortly after midnight, as hundreds of supporters chanted "Speaker! Speaker!", Pelosi took the stage at a victory party at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill and declared that she would chart a new path in Congress. "The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead," she said.
Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential race in 2000 and now teaches government at Georgetown University, said Pelosi's elevation would reverberate throughout the nation's political system.
"For centuries, the elevator for women in American politics has been stuck in the lobby," Brazile said. "But, tonight, we're on the verge of making history and can finally pull the switch forward."
Pelosi's rise reflects the extent to which women have gained political ground over the past three decades. Like another successful female Democrat, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Pelosi rose to national prominence by mastering the traditional political rules of the game: fundraising, policymaking and deal-cutting.
Pelosi became House minority leader four years ago, when Democrats were demoralized by electoral setbacks and relegated to the sidelines by the Republican majority. She convinced her colleagues that the road to the majority lay in drawing a sharp contrast with Bush and other GOP leaders. She insisted that lawmakers stick together and deny the majority as many legislative victories as possible, creating the most unified Democratic Caucus in half a century.
"Nancy's very strong," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who has broken with his party on occasion but backs Pelosi. "She's got a heart of gold, but she's got a spine of steel."
Pelosi has also proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, collecting $50 million for Democrats this election cycle. She has relentlessly hammered House GOP leaders as fostering "a culture of corruption" and has vowed to lead differently once Democrats take control.
In a private conference call on Monday, Pelosi told her colleagues that three words would define their new majority: "civility, honesty and fiscal responsibility."
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who is expected to return to the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said of Pelosi, "She will run the House the way it should be, with fairness, civility and courtesy."
But Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who has served under both a Democratic and a Republican majority, questioned Pelosi's sincerity.
"I don't see that at all," Kingston said in an interview yesterday, adding that he thinks Pelosi lacks the vision to keep the disparate wings of her party together and push for bold legislative proposals. "Nancy Pelosi's going to have a real tough time holding that crew together."
House Democrats have identified six modest, politically popular measures they hope to pass within the first 100 days of the next Congress. These proposals include raising the minimum wage, making college tuition tax-deductible and implementing the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations such as making a "maximum effort" to keep nuclear material out of terrorists' hands.
But Democrats will face more challenges once they dispense with those bills, including how to deal with the war in Iraq, reduce the nation's massive budget deficit and impose stricter ethics rules on lawmakers. Pelosi will also have to decide whether to give plum committee spots to first-term lawmakers or reserve them for more senior members, and whom to place at the top of key panels such as the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Pelosi is no stranger to national politics, having served in the House for nearly two decades and grown up in a well-known Maryland political family. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., served in the House and then was mayor of Baltimore for a dozen years. Later, her brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, also became Baltimore mayor.
Even as she has climbed the leadership ladder, however, Pelosi has been attentive to domestic matters such as caring for her five grandchildren. Her sixth could be born at any moment: Pelosi's daughter Alexandra was due to give birth last week, and the congresswoman made it clear she would leave Washington as soon as labor began, even if it started on election night.
Nine years ago, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) flew back and forth between the District and Manhattan twice when her daughter Dana gave birth, and she said she's not surprised that Pelosi is prepared to do the same for her daughter. "Women are used to multi-tasking," she said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.