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

By Philip Rucker and Paul Kane
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.

"As I said to my chairmen - ranking members now - 'I know that if we can achieve some bipartisanship, we should strive for that,' " Pelosi said.

But Pelosi is one scrappy pol, and what she wants is the majority back. On Monday, she met with Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), whom she appointed to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2012 cycle. The agenda: opposition research.

"She's organizing. She's mobilizing," Israel said. "There hasn't been a minute of regret."

As for how long she intends to stay in Congress, she won't say, not even to her closest friends. "She doesn't talk about it, and I don't ask," Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) said.

Since November's election, Pelosi has curbed her public appearances. She has not held an on-camera press conference - which had been weekly, free-wheeling briefings covering any topic - since September. She sat recently for only one long interview, with a veteran congressional reporter.

Privately, some lawmakers and senior staff suggest that Pelosi was stunned by how effective Republicans were in making her visage the leading negative image of the 2010 campaign. Republicans had tried this tactic many times before, throughout the 2008 campaign cycle and in special elections since then, but Democrats kept winning.

Yet in the final weeks of the campaign, Pelosi's popularity plummeted. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found in early November that just 29 percent of voters had a favorable image of her and that 58 percent had an unfavorable image.

The Democratic Party had no plan to defend the increasingly controversial speaker, while endangered Democratic candidates distanced themselves from her, as did senior White House officials.

Pelosi says she was targeted so intensely because she is effective. Indeed, her effectiveness has been without question. Since seizing the gavel in 2007, she held top-down control of her Democratic caucus. She and her allies exert more sway than some committee chairmen.

Pelosi has been at the forefront of every major piece of legislation to cross her desk in the past four years - from the bank bailouts and new Wall Street regulations to the health-care overhaul and repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

And when it came to steering her party's politics, Pelosi has always been at the wheel. Since joining elected leadership in 2002, first as minority whip, Pelosi has raised more than $246 million for Democratic candidates and party committees, aides said. In the past two years, she attended more than 250 events and fundraisers.

Pelosi and her allies reject the argument from many Democratic consultants that her public image is so battered that she should resign. Instead, she is becoming the first sitting speaker to move across the hall to the minority leader's office since 1955.

When Boehner is installed as speaker Jan. 5, Pelosi will deliver a speech laying out her direction for the new Congress. Until then, she isn't speaking of the transition.

On Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi held a bill enrollment ceremony for the Democrats's last historic accomplishment of the 111th Congress: repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Even before she climbed onto the stage, hundreds of gay rights advocates showered her and other lawmakers with a sustained standing ovation.

Pelosi spoke about closing a door to a "fundamental unfairness in our nation." Then she signed the bill with 18 commemorative pens before sending it down Pennsylvania Avenue for Obama to sign into law Wednesday.

It was a triumphant moment, one in which Pelosi reveled. "Oh, happy day," the speaker said. Then she exited the stage and headed back to work.

ruckerp@washpost.com kanep@washpost.com

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