America's first Madam Speaker
Nancy Pelosi plans to drive a '100-hour' agenda through the House.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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.