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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the home state of Rep. Betty McCollum (D). This version has been corrected.

Pelosi to Use House Recess to Sell Obama's Health-Care Plan

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi returned home to San Francisco this weekend carrying a red, white and blue pocket card that will help guide her through the August recess. The card lists talking points she hopes will convince everyday Americans of the benefits they could receive under the health-care reform plan she hatched with other House Democrats last week.

Pelosi distributed the cards to all 256 of her caucus members, arming the unruly Democratic majority for battle in their disparate districts across the country. After laboring for weeks in Washington to reach a compromise between liberal and conservative factions of her caucus, Pelosi is taking the fight outside the Beltway, where polls show that her popularity is faltering. She plans to stump for health-care reform in San Francisco, Denver and other cities.

At stake is legislation that could define her legacy as speaker and shape President Obama's political future. Pelosi called health-care reform with a public insurance option "the issue of an official lifetime."

"August will be a month of inoculation against the negative message of the insurance industry," Pelosi said in an interview, resting in a yellow armchair in her stately office, which has sweeping views of the Mall. "It will be a month of education in terms of what is in our bill. It will be a month of communication -- listening, listening, listening to what constituents have to say."

Health care is one of the biggest tests of her nearly three-year-old tenure. It comes at a time when Pelosi, 69, is widely respected and even feared on Capitol Hill but increasingly unpopular outside Washington. Her statements this spring accusing the CIA of lying to Congress, as well as repeated attacks by Republicans, have hampered her standing nationally. In June, 38 percent of Americans approved of the job she was doing as speaker while 45 percent disapproved, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"She has become a liability," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. "The speaker's popularity is waning, affecting her ability to legislate within her own caucus. . . . The closer this debate gets to 2010, the likelier it will be that Democrats in tough districts will look to create some separation from their party leadership."

Yet, along the Capitol's marble-floored corridors, hardly any Democrats speak negatively of her. Obama has praised her leadership in steering much of his agenda through Congress, including the economic stimulus package and a controversial climate-change bill.

In testy health-care negotiations over the past month, she has been pragmatic and unusually persistent, according to interviews with more than a dozen House Democrats. "She's like that good coach that knows when to give the pep talk," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). "And she's clearly raised kids before, because she knows how to mother us along when we're not exactly doing things the way we should."

Pelosi's caucus represents just about every political, regional and ethnic variety, and its members hold wildly divergent views on health care. "She's dealing with 256 Democrats who among them have 450 positions," joked Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). Pelosi respectfully calls her caucus "a great kaleidoscope."

Yet Pelosi, a liberal and the most powerful member of Congress, has remained unquestionably in charge. The woman who Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) once said presides over the House with an "iron hand" refused to relent on what she considers the bottom line of any bill: a public insurance option. She sternly told lawmakers that health-care reform is "the most important vote you will take in your careers in Congress" and that, above all else, "we have to get this done."

Pelosi regularly kept lawmakers holed up for hours in her conference room just beside the Capitol Rotunda, sweetening the talks with pistachios and Ghirardelli chocolates (the pride of San Francisco). Other times she was less generous. During debate last week over reimbursement rates, participants said, Pelosi threatened to bolt the door and starve lawmakers until they struck a deal. The talks continued until close to midnight.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called Pelosi "the key catalyst" in reaching compromises. "She can be a very tough leader -- very focused, disciplined," he said.


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