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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.

(Page 7 of 9)

After a year of intense White House negotiations and legislative wrangling, health-care reform was foundering. House and Senate versions of the bill were far apart, and an upset by Republican Scott Brown in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts special election dropped Democrats below the 60 votes they needed to block a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

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At the White House, the mood had turned to scaling back expectations. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel urged an incremental approach to break up the health-care bill and pass only those elements that could clear the Senate. But Pelosi, alone among top congressional leaders, balked. She would not accept health-care lite, she told the White House. "It's like the teensy-weensy spider," she said.

The plan subsequently worked out with the White House and Democratic leaders was this: Pass the Senate version of health-care reform in the House, along with a package of "fixes" that the Senate would commit to passing, under procedures requiring only a majority vote. With most of her caucus opposed to the Senate bill in its current form, Pelosi insisted on getting a commitment from the Senate on passing the fixes in writing. But first, Pelosi had to win a tough vote in her chamber.

She settled in for weeks of earlier mornings and later nights spent meeting with elements of her caucus: New Democrats, Blue Dogs, progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, vulnerable freshman and sophomores, as well as regional interests. She didn't expect GOP votes and invested no time looking for them. Step by step, she fielded the leading concerns members had with the Senate bill and what "fixes" could resolve them.

A week before the vote, it had all come down to a fierce, intraparty dispute over language limiting federal funding of abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat from Michigan, publicly backed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he and at least 40 of his supporters would vote down a Senate bill that did not contain the stronger House language blocking public abortion funding.

In response, 40 abortion-rights Democrats, led by Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, signed a letter pledging to vote down any legislation that further restricted a woman's right to choose. For the speaker, it appeared to be a cul-de-sac.

Enter the nuns. In a decisive move, Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Simone Campbell, representing NETWORK, a social-justice lobby for Catholic churchwomen, said publicly that the Senate language did not, in fact, expand federal funding for abortion and announced their support of the Senate bill – a rare public break with the bishops. "Our contacts there [in Pelosi's office] helped us know the rhythm and concerns of the speaker's office," Sister Campbell says. "We knew where the votes were or weren't. It's not rocket science. Key Catholic votes were needed – and [these members] needed assurance that this new abortion mechanism would work."