America's first Madam Speaker

Nancy Pelosi plans to drive a '100-hour' agenda through the House.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Vilified in Republican campaigns across the nation as a "San Francisco liberal," Nancy Pelosi – the speaker presumptive of the 110th Congress – actually lives politics closer to her roots in the precincts and wards of Baltimore's Democratic Party machine.

That's not to say she's a backslapping, cigar-champing pol. The totems in Representative Pelosi's office are white Casablanca lilies and San Francisco's Ghirardelli chocolates. Like many Democrats of her generation, she keeps a photograph of herself – then, a credible stand-in for Audrey Hepburn – with President Kennedy on a table in her office.

But what helped Pelosi become the first female speaker – and second in line to the presidency – is old-school pragmatism: a practical sense of how to build power and no qualms about using it.

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"The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead," she told cheering supporters in Washington on Tuesday.

A prodigious fundraiser with a family fortune, Pelosi openly split with the House's former Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, over the 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, which she opposed. When Mr. Gephardt stepped down after Democratic setbacks in that year's midterm election, Pelosi quickly consolidated support to replace him.

She insists that she would not hesitate to defend the nation, if needed. A woman in power is like "a lioness in the jungle," she said at a Monitor breakfast in March. "You know you're dead if you go near the cubs.... If you pose a real threat to the people of our country, you can count on hearing from us very soon," she added.

As minority leader in the House, Pelosi united a diverse and fractious Democratic caucus on more key votes than any leader in the past half century, according to a survey by Congressional Quarterly. She did it by setting clear lines and holding party members to them on the argument that a united caucus had a better shot at winning back the House than did a divided one.

But behind the unity is fear – mostly that she will strip projects or plum assignments from Democrats seen as working too conspicuously with Republican lawmakers.

Critics also charge that Pelosi has let partisanship interfere with legitimate oversight activities of Congress. Last September, when a House committee held a hearing on the government response to hurricane Katrina, she dubbed it a "a partisan whitewash" and urged Democrats not to attend. Two Gulf region Democrats went anyway, and the hearing turned out to be a grilling of Bush administration officials.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich minced no words in stating his view of a Pelosi-led House. It would be, he said in August, a "disaster" for the country.

A bigger tent to manage

As speaker, Pelosi will preside over a very diverse majority – broadened by the influx of red-state Democrats, many of them fiscal conservatives, that gave House Democrats their victory. Most newcomers are expected to line up with the moderate, "blue dog" wing of the caucus. With an expected margin about 30 votes, she will need all her pragmatic smarts to hold the new Democratic majority together.

"Pelosi has been able to maintain unity among Democrats, keep legislators on the same page and on message, count votes effectively, and cause problems for House Republicans. She clearly inherited her father's political skills," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, referring to former Baltimore mayor and US Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro. "Now, she will have no choice but to focus on keeping the Democratic machine intact, pushing her party to focus on politically effective issues and finding policies that will attract some Republican support."

In her first 100 legislative hours at the helm, Pelosi says, she aims to "drain the swamp" by passing a new rules package, including pay-as-you-go budgeting; raise the minimum wage; pass all the independent 9/11 commission recommendations; cut the interest rate on student loans by half; negotiate for lower drug prices in the Medicare prescription-drug program; end subsidies for Big Oil; and allow federal support of embryonic stem-cell research. All these items have at least some support across the aisle but involve bypassing the usual committee-hearing process to gain quick votes on the floor. It's an agenda that will test Pelosi's ability to hold her own majority while winning enough GOP support to get bills to the president's desk.

Diversity counts

While current Speaker Dennis Hastert characterizes his role as that of a coach, Pelosi often describes herself as presiding over a room in her "mother-of-five voice." (In fact, she is a mother of five and awaits the arrival of her sixth grandchild.) And there's no word more important in the Pelosi lexicon than "diversity."

Bypassing more senior colleagues, Pelosi appointed Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) of Ohio to be the first African-American woman to serve on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Hilda Solis (D) of California to be the first Latina on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) of California to be the first Latina to serve on the Judiciary Committee.

"She understands the importance of diversity ... of having all groups represented in the decisionmaking process," says Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who serves on the steering committee for the Democratic caucus.

In the next Congress, that committee will consider new rules for committee assignments within the caucus, including whether to downgrade the importance of seniority. "While seniority is important, other factors are as important in a committee assignment or chairmanship, such as geography, race, and political philosophy," he adds.

In a move that has already generated controversy, Pelosi has signaled that she is unlikely to name Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to the chairmanship, in favor of Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, next in line and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Respected in the intelligence community, Representative Harman often worked with the committee's GOP chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, even as Pelosi urged Democrats to hold ranks.

Caucus moderates are urging Pelosi to embrace the new freshman moderates.

Her "challenge is to wrap her arms around all aspects of the different philosophies that exist in this big Democratic tent, which is much larger as a result of this election," says Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, a moderate Democrat. "I've tried to encourage ... Pelosi to put them in the room with her when she makes ... decisions."

Meanwhile, feminist activists hailed the historic moment of the first woman speaker ever. "This is the highest political leadership post ever held by a woman and puts Pelosi in the driver's seat as we begin to fulfill the will of the electorate and reshape the national agenda," says Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a group that supports abortion-rights candidates.

"Seeing this smart, tough, effective woman leading the Congress will help pave the way for the future of all women in politics," she added in a statement.

Pelosi basics

• Career: House Democratic leader, 2002-present; Democratic whip, 2001-2002; House of Representatives, 1987-present; Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, 1984-1986; chairwoman, California Democratic Party, 1983-1984.

• Birthplace: Baltimore, Md.

• Current Hometown: San Francisco.

• Education: Bachelor of arts, Trinity College, 1962.

• Family: Husband, Paul; five children; five grandchildren.

• Self-description: "An Italian Catholic mother of five, grandmother of five, going on six."

• Former G.O.P. Speaker Newt Gingrich's description: "A hyperpartisan obstructionist."

• Miscellaneous: Pelosi stuffs cotton in her ears when she takes her grandkids to rock concerts. And she's so petite, a policeman once lifted her out of her shoes during an evacuation of the Capitol.

• What to expect with Pelosi as Speaker: Democrats could be expected to let most of President Bush's tax cuts expire and to block any new effort to privatize parts of Social Security.

• Quote: "I think targeting me [during the election] – most people don't even know who I am – is an act of desperation on the part of the Republicans. We're going to keep the focus in a very optimistic way on our new direction."

Source: The Associated Press

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