Nancy Pelosi perma-grins and bears it as she hands speaker's gavel to John Boehner

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:00 PM

Why is this woman smiling?

Nancy Pelosi smiled and applauded on the House floor Wednesday afternoon as the clerk read the tally of the vote that formally ended her speakership.

She smiled even as 19 of her Democratic colleagues, one-tenth of her caucus, called out their votes symbolically opposing her as their new minority leader.

By the time she handed the oversized gavel to John Boehner, her emotional successor as House speaker, he was weeping with the flow rate of a lawn sprinkler. Yet Pelosi smiled still.

It was the same joyless perma-grin - really, a grimace with upturned corners of the mouth - that came to define Pelosi during her four years in charge of the House: an expression meant to connote her warmth and sincerity that too often conveyed the opposite.

But there was a genuine reason for Pelosi to smile as she surrendered the gavel: She was returning to a job that suits her better.

As speaker, her record was mixed. She had many major legislative achievements, particularly in the past two years, but she also led her caucus off an electoral cliff, in part because she forced members to take damaging votes on policies that didn't have a chance of passing the Senate.

In her four years as minority leader, by contrast, Pelosi's effectiveness was seldom questioned as she tripped up the majority with her relentless opposition. "If people are ripping your face off," she said before winning the majority in 2006, "you have to rip their face off."

Pelosi is better in the fight than she is in charge, a more able warrior than lawmaker.

She had already begun to return to her warrior ways on Wednesday, in her last public appearance as speaker before the transfer-of-power ceremony. She served notice to the audience, a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, that she has every intention of reclaiming her title after the 2012 election. "We all know what our role is," she said, hands on hips. "Two years from now when we come together, things will be different. Things will be different. And we are now all engaged in a campaign for all Americans."

This time, the grin on Pelosi's face looked entirely genuine.

Even before she relinquished the gavel, she was trying out her themes as the new minority leader. "We extend a hand, a willing hand of friendship" to Republicans, she told the black caucus meeting, as long as "we're not giving tax cuts to the rich and sending the bill to our grandchildren."

"We look for common ground," she said, "but where we cannot find common ground, we must stand our ground."

Even though Pelosi may be a natural opposition leader, that doesn't mean she's giving up primacy easily. At an event Tuesday with her deputy, Steny Hoyer, she first said, "I'm very pleased today to be here with our majority l-," then caught herself. "Democratic leader," she corrected.

"You can keep calling me that, if you want," Hoyer said. "I won't object."

She has continued to refer to her Democratic committee leaders as "my chairmen," although they can no longer use that title. In her final public appearance before the transfer of power, Pelosi reminded her audience: "Yes, I am still speaker of the House for a few - for a short period of time."

Soon after, she was on the floor for the roll-call vote for the position. As expected, 241 Republicans called out Boehner's name. On the Democratic side, 173 called out Pelosi's.

But 19 other Democrats called out a different name - a meaningless but highly public rebuke of Pelosi's leadership. As the votes were called, Pelosi adopted her perma-grin, occasionally adding a shrug or a dismissive wave of the hand. She busied herself with the two grandchildren who sat on her lap.

Only when she stood to deliver her farewell speech was the strain visible to those watching from the gallery. Her hands were shaking, and she kept clasping them to settle the tremors.

Pelosi's farewell had some similarity to the "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" speech Hillary Rodham Clinton made when she ended her 2008 presidential run. Pelosi spoke of "the historic honor of service as the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives - and now more doors are wide open for all of America's daughters and granddaughters."

Before passing the gavel, she offered a quick recitation of her legislative achievements, particularly the health-care bill. Republicans reacted with a few smirks and one guffaw. But she had generous words for her successor - "a man of conviction, a public servant of resolve, and a legislative leader of skill" - before handing him the oversized mallet, "larger than most gavels here but the gavel of choice of Mister" - she caught herself - "Speaker Boehner."

Boehner recovered enough to return his tear-soaked handkerchief to his pocket and accept the gavel. It would have been a good time for the vanquished speaker to slip from the chamber and perhaps have herself a good cry. Instead, Pelosi took her place in the minority leader's seat on the House floor, looked up at the new speaker and smiled.

For more opinions on new Congress, read:

© 2011 The Washington Post Company