Pelosi Steps Into the Spotlight
New House Leader's Agenda, Management Style Take Center Stage

By Shailagh Murray and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Nancy Pelosi is a bit of a control freak.

She obsesses over the wording of statements from her office. She has a tight circle of confidants and demands utter loyalty. She can be incredibly stubborn. On a tour of the ravaged Gulf Coast this summer, Rep. John B. Larson (D) questioned the California Democrat's pledge to rush a packed agenda through the House in the first 100 hours, if Democrats won the majority. Why not a more realistic time frame, Larson asked, like 100 days?

Pelosi rested her hand on her Connecticut colleague's arm and reminded him, politely but firmly, of the devastation they had just seen. The 100-hour goal would stand. "Madam Leader, you've made your point," Larson replied.

The woman who will become speaker of the House in January is strong-willed and determined, an ambitious late bloomer who raised five kids, waded slowly into politics and now stands second in line of presidential succession. Republicans like to ridicule Pelosi as a San Francisco liberal, and her voting record suggests that at least on paper, they are not off base. But her Democratic colleagues describe her as far more pragmatic and realistic than the caricature suggests.

The morning after the election, Pelosi spoke almost reverentially about her new role. "I understand my role as leader of the Democrats," she told reporters in a packed reception room off the House floor. "And I very, very much respect that I will be the speaker of the House, and not of the Democrats."

Pelosi's top priority is to pass the bills that Democrats promised voters on the campaign trail: a minimum wage increase, alternative energy incentives, incentives to keep jobs in the United States. Passionately antiwar, she also is determined to draw the Bush administration into a debate over the Iraq war. Hopefully, she said, the unexpected resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would mark "a fresh start toward a new policy in Iraq, signaling a willingness on the part of the president to work with the Congress to devise a better way forward."

But her management skills will quickly be put to the test, as a referee in possible battles over other leadership jobs, and in helping to shape the overall image of Democrats by pushing different factions of the caucus forward on various issues.

In the coming days, Pelosi must decide whether to take sides in a race for majority leader between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the current Democratic whip, and Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), a leader of the House Democrats' antiwar faction. Murtha is one of Pelosi's closest allies in Congress, but Hoyer is well-liked by moderates and traditional Democrats.

Another question is whether Pelosi will appoint Rep. Jane Harman, currently the top Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to head the prestigious panel. Pelosi has nursed a well-publicized grudge against her fellow California Democrat because she believes Harman has not been a tough enough critic of President Bush on security matters, while using her ties to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee to lobby for the chairmanship.

One of Pelosi's strengths, her colleagues say, has been her ability to unify an otherwise unruly group of liberal, moderates and conservatives, in just about every regional and ethnic variety. Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) said that a few years ago, Pelosi made a concerted effort to woo him and other "Blue Dog" Democrats -- a vital investment, as it turns out. This group of centrist Democrats grew exponentially this week and will make up at least a fifth of the caucus in the next Congress.

Two big priorities for Peterson and his allies are tougher fiscal discipline and renewable fuel projects that benefit farm communities. Peterson said he was counting on Pelosi to push for both in coming weeks.

Another group that Pelosi has carefully cultivated are junior members. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) recalled that after he suggested to Pelosi that Democrats engage Republicans on the question of national security, she allowed him and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to organize seven hours of special order speeches on the subject.

"You don't have to be a chair now or a ranking member to play a key role," Schiff said.

Pelosi's bicoastal political identity was formed by some hard lessons and lucky breaks. Her late father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was a mayor of Baltimore, but after 12 years in office, he was defeated in a primary and later lost a Senate bid. Pelosi married a wealthy San Francisco businessman and migrated West. While raising five children, she waded into state politics as a fundraiser and organizer, becoming California Democratic Party chairman in 1981. She was narrowly elected to the House in a 1987 special election, at age 47.

Pelosi, now 66, talks frequently about her roles as a mother and grandmother, and this perspective powerfully informs how she views her political job. She gushed over a group of school kids who greeted her at the Capitol yesterday morning. They reminded her, she later told reporters, that the election "was about the future," and underscored "the responsibility of one generation to another." When Pelosi wants her House colleagues to know she means business, she uses her "mother of five voice."

She is a stickler for good behavior. Pelosi pledged on election night to lead "the most honest, the most open and most ethical Congress in history" and earned wide praise earlier this year when she forced Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) to surrender a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee, after he became embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Pelosi is a devout Catholic, and while she supports abortion rights, she recognizes a growing concern among Democrats that the issue is so divisive that it is pushing many voters beyond the party's reach. Rep. Timothy J. Ryan of Ohio belongs to a new generation of more conservative Democrats who want to address abortion in a different way, by aiming to reduce unwanted pregnancies. He recalled Pelosi's presence at numerous meetings with both pro-abortion-rights and antiabortion Democrats to diffuse tensions and allow Ryan and his colleagues to bring a bill forward.

"It's just very skillful, very seasoned," Ryan said of Pelosi's approach.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who is expected to take over the Appropriations Committee, said Pelosi would define her leadership by pushing for her agenda while banishing the "oppressive sense of meanness to the place" that he said Republicans had brought to Capitol Hill. He compared Pelosi to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was known for her hardball political tactics.

"She's got the toughness and tenacity of Maggie Thatcher, but she's nice about it," Obey said.

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