No looking back for Pelosi as Democratic House speaker prepares to pass gavel

House Democrats elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader Wednesday, turning to the once-powerful speaker to oversee a shrunken and demoralized caucus.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:01 AM

Here's how she's letting go of the gavel.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strode into the chamber, which Tuesday morning was silent and mostly empty. She called the House to order. She stood for the monsignor's prayer. She remained standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then she hurried off. On what was probably her last full day as speaker, Pelosi held the gavel for no more than five minutes.

There was no time for a valedictory or even a toast. Pelosi still had history to make, inequities to erase, strategies to craft. As she quickly crossed Statuary Hall, tourists cried out: "Speaker! Speaker!" The nation's first female speaker, and one of history's most consequential, waved but did not stop.

The California Democrat was installed four years ago with the attendant pomp and then some. There was a Mass in her native Baltimore, a gala dinner at the Italian Embassy, and a Jimmy Buffet and Carole King concert. She took the oath of office and rejoiced in having "broken the marble ceiling." Her grandchildren joined her at the rostrum and touched her gavel.

But as Pelosi relinquishes the speakership to return to her earlier post as leader of the Democratic minority, she is avoiding any markings of transition. Her personal photos and plaques are packed in boxes, her office furniture stacked in a hallway. But she's not moving very far and says she has more work to do.

"We'll just see what we come up with in the next 24 hours," Pelosi said in a brief interview Tuesday. "Come January, I've played that role before, as minority leader, and look forward to going forward there, hopefully extending the hand of friendship for as much bipartisanship as we can achieve but also watching to see what direction the Congress goes in and making our points of difference known."

In the minority, Pelosi will be freed from the ceremonial duties of being speaker and crafting a governing agenda. Instead, lawmakers say, she is likely to more narrowly focus on defending Democratic legislative accomplishments and serving as a liberal check on President Obama's compromises with Republican leaders.

At 70, Pelosi could simply retire. But she will leave on no terms but her own. Republicans pummeled her during this fall's midterm campaigns. In more than 150 television ads across the country, she was the scapegoat for all that was wrong with Washington. She weathered the dramatic rebuke to her party to stay on as Democratic leader.

Pelosi is moving into the suite now occupied by House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio). She has had some bold red walls painted over with a soft canary yellow. And the space will air out over Christmas, to rid it of Boehner's cigarette smoke.

Now, in public, Pelosi is projecting a no-looking-back aura. And behind closed doors, she is laboring to refashion the image of House Democrats - as well as herself.

Lawmakers say she is consulting marketing experts about building a stronger brand. The most prominent of her new whisperers is Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood director whose films have been works of branding genius. Lawmakers said Spielberg has not reported toPelosi with a recommendation.

Pelosi met Friday with the members who will serve as ranking Democrats on committees, and she appointed a trio of rank-and-file legislators to take on new roles in helping shape and deliver the party's message.

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