House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, in some ways lives in a bubble of protection. She arrives for a Monitor-sponsored lunch with reporters in an armored SUV and bodyguards trail her into a hotel two blocks from the White House.
But whether at work or at home, the first woman speaker in the nation's history cannot escape the unhappiness of those – including a key part of the base of her party – who want Congress to move faster to end the war in Iraq. "I am well aware of the unhappiness of the base," Speaker Pelosi said.
For more than four months, antiwar protesters have been "sitting outside my home, going into my garden in San Francisco and angering my neighbors, hanging their clothes from the trees, building all kinds of things, [putting] couches, sofas, chairs, permanent living facilities on my front sidewalk," she says. More recently protesters have taken up positions outside her Washington home.
So while the speaker's opening remarks to the dining room full of print journalists focused on domestic accomplishments by the Democratic Congress, much of the hour was – like her life – focused on war-related issues. "The war has eclipsed everything. And while I am very proud of the ratings that Democrats have on every issue you can name, I don't disagree with the public evaluation that we have not done well in ending this war," she said.
Pelosi stressed the differing roles of antiwar activists and congressional leaders. "We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow. God bless them for their passion on this issue. I believe that mostly they are right. But I do believe that we are responsible [for] a ... safe redeployment of our troops out of Iraq and that is what we will continue to fight for."
Activists who want to target congressional Democrats for lack of action on the war are misguided, the speaker argued. "I think it is a waste of time for them to go after Democratic members. They ought to just persuade Republican members who are representing areas that are opposed to the war," she said. "We said we would change the debate; we would fight to end the war. We never said we had the veto pen or the signature pen."
While offering flattering comments about Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Pelosi spoke about the other chamber with frustration. "It is clear now that the Senate is not going to be able to do much to overcome the 60- vote barrier that would send a bill to the president's desk. But that does not mean the House will not move to … responsible, safe redeployment of our troops, hopefully to end by next year," Pelosi said.
She agreed with those who say the Iraq war is being fought without equality of sacrifice. But responding to recent legislative proposals for a war tax, she said, "I don't support a draft, and I don't support a war tax."
In recent weeks, Pelosi has taken a somewhat higher public profile. She has begun holding weekly press conferences on Capitol Hill and last weekend appeared on Fox News Sunday. She denied the timing was designed to take voters' minds off the lack of congressional success in ending the war.
"No, what this is [is] that I have been very busy taking care of the children, taking care of business in Congress. We had our work to do. I think what the president has learned on the immigration bill is that passing legislation is very difficult. So this required my full attention. Now that we have done most of our legislation, it is time for us to gain the public support for it."
Pelosi disputed a story in Tuesday's New York Times that reported that Democrats appear ready to make concessions that would extend for several years the blanket authority for the National Security Agency to eavesdrop that was originally granted by Congress last August in the "Protect America Act." One reason, the story said, was fear that Democrats will be called soft on terror if they insist on strict curbs on gathering intelligence.
"This isn't Democrats being concerned about the next election. This is about Democrats saying the law must be followed. And we will collect whatever intelligence we need to protect the American people under the law," the speaker said.
"If you see the House bill that [Judiciary Committee Chairman] John Conyers [of Michigan], a great civil libertarian, and [Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman] Silvestre Reyes [of Texas] are putting in the hopper, I think today, to be marked up this week, you will see a bill that is not only better than what the bill was in August, it is better than the original FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] law in protecting our civil liberties. Again, recognizing that we have to get good intelligence and we have to do so in a way that is under the law. And we will do so in a way that has audits and is accountable and has guidelines on how to proceed in this manner," she said.
Pelosi, who will be honorary chair of next year's Democratic convention offered a wry view of the party's presidential candidates. "I think all of our candidates are great. They are all great; most of them can win. Of those, any one of those winners would make a great president," she said.