Pelosi makes history, and enemies, as an effective House speaker

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010;

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is so unpopular in some places that she often avoids public appearances. During a recent House recess, she hopscotched across the country, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars at closed-door fundraisers, turning up in public only at the White House and in her hometown of San Francisco.

But under the Capitol dome, Pelosi is a towering figure, perhaps even a historic one. Capped by her central role in passing the landmark health-care bill in March, the California Democrat, 70, has transformed herself from the caricature of a millionaire liberal with impeccable fashion taste into a speaker on par with the revered Sam Rayburn, according to historians, pollsters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans betting on her unpopularity outside of Washington have made the speaker the face of their effort to retake the House this fall, asking donors to "Fire Nancy Pelosi" while showing images of her engulfed in flames. The first tests of that strategy will come later this month with the GOP trying to win two seats long held by Democrats in special elections in Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

But Pelosi girded for this fight years ago, when she outlined a four-step plan for a lasting Democratic control of the House. The first two steps came with winning the majority in 2006 and expanding it in 2008.

While hoping for big Democratic gains in the 2012 presidential election cycle, the goal this year is merely to "sustain" the majority. With the economy limping along, Democrats are bracing for deep losses but cannot afford to lose more than 40 seats. Pelosi said she's ready for the fight.

"You're in the arena. And when you're in the arena, you know that someone's going to throw a punch. And if you decide to throw a punch, you'd better be ready to take one, too," she said. "There's a lot at stake."

Influential leader

Young Nancy D'Alesandro first took note of the speaker's power on a trip to Ocean City, when her father, the influential mayor of Baltimore, had to pull the family car over for a passing motorcade. "It was the speaker coming through. Oh my God, the speaker of the House," Pelosi recalled about Rayburn's entourage.

Some historians list her alongside Rayburn and his successor, John W. McCormack, as among the most influential speakers in the annals of Congress. The two men reigned for a combined 27 years, through World War II, the early days of the Cold War, the passage of civil rights laws and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

Voters have taken notice of Pelosi as well.

Shortly after the health-care bill's passage, Democratic pollster Peter Hart gathered a dozen people in Sacramento who had voted for President Obama. Asked for one word to describe various leaders, Hart said, the voters had the following replies about Pelosi: strong, shrewd, a leader, powerful, persistent.

The voters told the pollster that Obama lacks the political toughness of former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and that they think Pelosi is "the yin to Obama's yang," Hart said. "She complemented him and essentially makes him a better leader and a better president. . . . They saw Nancy Pelosi as providing Barack Obama with the qualities he didn't have himself."

Republicans who used to criticize her as an out-of-touch West Coast liberal now say she rules the House with an iron fist. They say voters paid close attention to the complicated legislative process that led to final passage of the health-care bill.

"They watch that process take place. They watch who does it. It's Pelosi," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), a member of the GOP leadership.

Pelosi is the biggest Democratic draw on the fundraising circuit next to Obama. She is credited with raising $28.5 million for Democratic committees and candidates at nearly 140 events since January 2009. And she has inherited late senator Edward M. Kennedy's mantle among progressives as the liberal leader whose nod of support says that a proposed deal is as good as it gets.

"I don't lack for invitations to go places," Pelosi said, explaining that she takes "some level of pride in the adversaries I have collected along the way. It certainly helps my support in the base and my fundraising. Thank you for making the attack."

Speaker 'for' the House

Late one night in January, as congressional leaders and White House officials tried to narrow their differences on the cost of the health-care bill, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) gave Obama credit. "I don't speak for the House, but this is a good offer," the commerce committee chairman said, according to those present.

"Henry, I agree with you about two things," Pelosi interjected. "The president put out some numbers, and, number two, you don't speak for the House."

That exchange captures the power that the speaker wields. She -- not a committee chairman -- is the Democratic decider on almost every major issue, from which bills reach the House floor to key political decisions involving campaigns.

Many observers credit her legislative successes to the machine politics she learned at her father's knee. Despite her polished appearance -- she was recently lampooned at a black-tie dinner as representing "Giorgio Armani" in Congress -- Pelosi has more cunning than her opponents had ever suspected.

"On the outside, she's a Pelosi. On the House floor, she's a D'Alesandro. She's her father's daughter," said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who previously served with her in the House leadership.

Almost every key negotiation in the last three years has been settled at her conference table in the Capitol. She always takes the middle seat with her back to the window overlooking the Mall, with a 2005 portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging above. A firm believer in the prerogatives of the House, Pelosi's portrait is of Lincoln during his one congressional term, not from his historic presidency.

Her guests are almost always offered food, with ice cream and candy her personal favorites. After a successful negotiation with conservative House Democrats last July, Pelosi told reporters that food is always a key ingredient: "We either feed them to stay longer, or we starve them so they go home."

Pelosi is fond of using lists to illustrate her beliefs: The "three pillars" of her agenda are education, energy and health care, and the "three Ms" of politics are message, money and mobilization. Her overarching goal is to reverse what she calls an "extraction of wealth" during the Bush administration from the middle class to the upper class. "This isn't a casual Democratic-Republican [dispute]. This is a different view of who has the leverage," she said.

Her allies cite a far more pragmatic approach. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), credited Pelosi with negotiating credits for power plants in climate-change legislation that enabled several dozen Midwestern Democrats from coal-heavy states to support the bill last summer.

Some environmentalists decried the political calculation as harmful to the overall effort to curb carbon emissions, but Pelosi prevailed in an anxious 219-212 vote. "She is interested in getting things done, not ideology. She doesn't have an ideological purity test," Van Hollen said.

Pelosi often eschews narrow special deals for one or two lawmakers and instead aims for tweaks that can win over groups of lawmakers. Pelosi calls this the "great kaleidoscope" approach, finding the right mix to reach at least 218 votes.

"We don't lose. We don't lose," she said. "And not everybody votes with us every time, but enough people do."

Eyes on the prize

After Scott Brown's special-election victory in Massachusetts robbed Senate Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority, some pushed for a scaled-down version of health-care legislation to draw Republican support. Pelosi balked. In a moment that has come to define her speakership, Pelosi mocked a scaled-down bill as "Eensy Weensy Spider" health care.

She agreed to find the votes for the Senate version of the legislation if Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) promised that both chambers would then pass a smaller bill of fixes using a parliamentary tactic that would allow a simple majority vote.

Van Hollen said Pelosi's commitment to health care restored "a lot of faith" with liberal voters that there is a congressional leader who can drive Obama's agenda across the finish line. "There was no guarantee we were going to get health care done, and it easily could have failed with a different speaker," he said.

The final vote came on Sunday night, March 21, after two full days of protests outside the Capitol by conservatives who chanted mockingly, "Nan-cy, Nan-cy." They even heckled her daughter.

Republicans say the passage of the health-care legislation -- done without a single GOP vote in the House or the Senate -- opens Democrats up to a political line of attack that will both energize the conservative Republican base and turn off independent voters who backed Obama's 2008 message of changing the way business is done in Washington. They now portray Pelosi as almost a co-president to Obama, particularly in the run-up to the Pennsylvania and Hawaii elections this month.

"If Republicans win these two races, America will have two more congressmen standing up to the jobs-killing Pelosi-Obama agenda," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in an e-mail to conservatives Wednesday. A similar appeal by the Republican National Committee -- the group that pictured the House speaker in a fiery blaze -- collected more than $1.5 million in the week after the health-care vote.

Some have questioned whether Republicans are being sexist in their attacks on the first female speaker of the House. But Pelosi has said that being a woman has "a very positive upside," as she explained in a 2008 interview with The Washington Post. So many women and fathers of daughters were invested in her success that it far outweighed any downside. She has long argued that it was harder for a woman to win the speaker's gavel than it would be to win the White House, considering that women make up less than a sixth of the House membership but more than half of general electorate.

In her fourth year as speaker, her primary focus remains on keeping the Democratic majority.

"If you're asking me how long I intend to stay here, I don't know. I don't know. I just don't know. I have certain issues that I want to accomplish, but what's more important to me is that we have a strong Democratic majority," she said. "That's more important than who is speaker."

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