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Opinion Nancy Pelosi: ‘The stories kept coming’

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Feb. 7 gave a speech on the House floor about “dreamers” that lasted more than eight hours. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

No, Nancy Pelosi insisted. Her feet didn’t hurt a bit.

The House minority leader was finally sitting down Wednesday night, on a plush goldenrod couch in her office, after standing and speaking for more than eight hours straight on the House floor. It was the longest anyone has done so in more than a century.

And she was still wearing the gunmetal-blue stilettos that had brought almost as much commentary as her marathon itself. Her only complaint was that something in the chamber’s carpet gives her the sniffles, for which her colleagues provided a steady supply of tissues.

“When you’re talking, it’s very short. It’s when you’re listening that it’s long,” she laughed.

Pelosi used her time to share the names and life stories of nearly 300 young people who were brought to this country by their parents. Many know no other home.

She was making what may be a futile demand that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) give the House a chance to vote on a solution for the immigrants known as “dreamers,” whose fates are uncertain since President Trump rescinded an Obama-era program that protected them from deportation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised there would be such an opportunity in the Senate.

Pelosi hadn’t known that she would be speaking so long when she took the floor, using a House rule, known as a “magic minute,” granting unlimited time to the party leaders.

Nancy Pelosi's principled stand for immigrants could end with her falling on her own political sword. (Video: The Washington Post)

But once she put out a call for fellow Democrats to send her names and personal accounts, “the stories kept coming and coming and coming, and fresher and fresher and fresher,” Pelosi told me.

There are many — including no small number in her own party — who believe that Pelosi is a liability to Democrats’ chances of taking back the House. This fall, once again, she will star in countless Republican attack ads. The mention of her name is a sure way to bring boos from conservative audiences.

Her base-pleasing gambit on behalf of the dreamers may well backfire in swing districts, where it will be portrayed as risking a government shutdown on behalf of people who are not in the country legally.

But the image of a 77-year-old woman holding her ground in four-inch heels was also a reminder of what makes Pelosi so hard to replace for the Democrats: her steel.

She outlasted a dozen presiding officers who rotated through the speaker’s chair. Six hours in, she declared: “I have no intention of yielding back.”

Pelosi’s instincts and skills were honed in the living room of 245 Albemarle St. in Baltimore, where the youngest of six and only daughter of Mayor Tom D’Alesandro Jr. learned to count votes by precinct and helped manage the “favor file,” keeping track of those from whom reciprocation might be asked someday.

As speaker from 2007 to 2011, she wielded the power of the office with brutal efficiency. In Barack Obama’s first years in office, Pelosi and her 81-seat majority passed every item on his agenda: health care, climate change, regulatory reform, education, pay equity. Former California congressman George Miller, her longtime friend and adviser, used to say that as he watched her work the floor for that last few votes, he could almost hear the theme music from “Jaws.”

Pelosi secured Obama’s legacy, and her own, but it came at an enormous cost to the Democrats, igniting an electoral backlash that lost them the House in 2010 and sent them into the wilderness, where they have been ever since.

The idea of making her stand on the House floor came to her at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

“I don’t get too much sleep,” Pelosi said. “You just have to lie there, and then you can think. You get your inspiration. Your mind is clear. You’re not distracted by anything.”

On the drive in to work a few hours later, she called her deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill and told him to start compiling material — not just dreamers’ stories, but religious verses.

That was because, by her calculation, she was 40 hours away from the deadline to pass a budget bill to keep the government open, after which any leverage she had would be gone.

“Forty is a biblical number — you know, 40 years in the desert; 40 days for the Jews; 40 days in the desert for Christ; 40 days of Lent; 40 hours of Christian Catholic faith in the hours of devotion,” she said. “I thought, oh my goodness, what a coincidence.”

But there’s another number that surely is never far from her calculation: 24. That’s how many net seats the Democrats need to regain the majority — the test of whether Pelosi can still lead them to the Promised Land.

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