Nancy Pelosi puts her stamp on the House
Nancy Pelosi is a master tactician and the most powerful speaker in a half century. Behind her personal brand of power politics – and whether she will still be speaker after the midterm elections.
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It helped that Pelosi had two growing power bases on which to build her ascent to power. One was the California delegation, the largest in the House; the other, women. When Pelosi first came to the House, 23 women served in the chamber. When she defeated Mr. Hoyer for whip in October 2001, there were 62. Today, there are 76.Skip to next paragraph
Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey recalls giving Pelosi an early commitment to vote for her in the whip race against Hoyer. Soon after, he got calls from key constituents making sure he was going to keep his pledge. "She knew just who to have call me from back home – people I would listen to," he says.
When House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt stepped down after yet another disappointing midterm election for Democrats in 2002, Pelosi was elected by the caucus to take his place.
For four years as leader of the Democratic minority, Pelosi urged her caucus to oppose the majority at every point and force Republicans to come up with the tough votes on their own. Unlike Mr. Gephardt, Pelosi pushed for strict party loyalty. Every Democrat who voted with the Republicans gave a GOP moderate, especially those in swing districts, a pass, she said. With that game plan, Pelosi led Democrats to their highest party unity scores since Congressional Quarterly began keeping track in 1953, despite their deep divide over the Iraq war.
In the 2006 midterm elections, she framed a national campaign attacking the GOP for presiding over a "culture of corruption." Democrats picked up 31 seats – 20 from districts that had voted for George W. Bush in 2004 – and retook control of the House. On Jan. 4, 2007, grandchildren at her side, Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman speaker, the highest office attained by a woman in US politics.
Even though House Democrats picked up another 21 seats in the 2008 elections, expanding their majority to 257 to 178, many of these new members came from moderate to conservative districts. Pelosi dubbed them her "majority makers."
But the new "big tent" majority posed a formidable management challenge. Many of the newcomers from previously held GOP seats had won their elections railing against big government, deficit spending, and taxes. Some called for more limits on abortion rights and defended gun rights.
They often found themselves at odds with the Democratic majority they helped to create. Pelosi listened. When possible, she compromised. When necessary, she mobilized outside groups to help persuade. But the outreach did not extend to minority Republicans, who were feeling increasingly alienated – and hostile.
"There has not been a glimmer of bipartisanship," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "It's one thing to not include Republican ideas in the legislation, but Republicans aren't even allowed to present amendments to improve the legislation."
Nowhere would Pelosi's skills at finding unexpected resources to swing votes be more challenged than over health-care reform.
Even before she took over as Speaker, Pelosi had maintained close relations with Catholic women's religious organizations. They shared not only the same faith but often also the same politics. Catholic activists would meet at least weekly with members of her office. They worked together on issues such as support for the uninsured, child nutrition, immigration, and expanding health coverage for poor children. Those ties were about to become pivotal.