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Pelosi set to lead Democrats out of the desert

Rep. Nancy Pelosi dashes off declarations about what she would do with a Democratic majority in the House with the ease of someone ordering a latte at Starbucks.
US House Minority leader Pelosi waves to supporters at an election night party in Washington
Nancy Pelosi, set to be the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, didn’t run for Congress until she was 46, when her youngest daughter reached high school.Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rep. Nancy Pelosi dashes off declarations about what she would do with a Democratic majority in the House with the ease of someone ordering a latte at Starbucks.

The woman expected to become the nation’s first Madam Speaker promises a barrage of “discrete deliverables” in the first 100 work hours after the Democrats take control:

  • Boost the minimum wage? The only question is how high, how fast.
  • Fiscal discipline? “Remove all doubt. Pay as you go.”
  • Research on new embryonic stem cells? Scrap the ban on federal funding.
  • Problematic prescription drug coverage for seniors? “We can do something about that.”
  • 9-11 commission recommendations? Approved on Day One.

The list goes on and on of things she’d get passed by the House and battle to make law.

All this from fractious House members, and within only their first 100 hours in session?

“Well, I would do them all on the first day, but I know they have friends and relatives in town and they want to celebrate,” Pelosi says with a playful grin.

Anticipating her party’s new majority status, Pelosi struck a confident and conciliatory tone Tuesday night: “Democrats are ready to lead. We are prepared to govern. And we will do so working together with the administration and Republicans in Congress in partnership, not partisanship.”

Pelosi, 66, made history four years ago when she became the first woman to lead a party caucus in either house of Congress, piercing what she calls a “marble ceiling” in the Capitol that’s even harder to break than the proverbial glass ceiling encountered by many women.

Twice in the past, Pelosi had presented Republican Dennis Hastert with the speaker’s gavel as the GOP extended its control of the House for two more years. “This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker,” she said last time.

Then, she did her darndest to make sure it didn’t happen again, organizing difficult-to-corral Democrats into a united front against President Bush and congressional Republicans, campaigning tirelessly for members of her own party and raising campaign cash for them by the boatload.

'Bring us out of the desert'
Pelosi, a liberal who represents one of the nation’s most liberal congressional districts, presides over a Democratic caucus in which members voted with their party 88 percent of the time in 2005, one of the most cohesive records in decades, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.

She raised $59 million for House candidates this election cycle and more than $100 million since she was elected Democratic leader.

No one has worked harder “to bring us out of the desert,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, a fellow Democrat from California and longtime friend. “This woman is a human tornado.”

Pelosi, the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors, grew up immersed in politics and moved west in her 20s when her investment banker husband wanted to return to his roots. She managed to work herself into California’s Democratic political structure while raising five children who were born over six years.

She didn’t run for Congress until she was 46, when her youngest daughter reached high school.

Twenty years later, Pelosi’s confident vision for House Democrats will be sorely tested in the messy business of making laws.

Her pledge to treat Republicans more fairly than they have dealt with Democrats could be “the first casualty of a Pelosi speakership,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California who has written extensively about Congress.

Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker said that as a leader of the Democratic minority, Pelosi executed “guerrilla warfare against a vastly superior force.” Her weaknesses, he said, included the Democrats’ failure to offer a clear message to counter the Republicans and her sometimes halting television presence. “She needs some work in the green room,” he said.

“My hunch is that there is some uneasiness in the House about her as speaker,” Baker said, adding that such reservations are tied partly to her liberal image.

Republicans worked overtime to stoke those reservations during a campaign that, in some GOP races, sometimes seemed to be solely about Pelosi. All around the country, GOP partisans invoked the specter of “Speaker Pelosi” as reason enough to keep the House in Republican hands.

Golden Gate in Indiana
In Indiana, for example, GOP mailings on behalf of Republican Rep. John Hostettler magically transported the Golden Gate Bridge from Pelosi’s district to an Indiana field, and declared, “San Francisco values don’t belong in Indiana.”

Pelosi, whose district takes in much of San Francisco, has a voting record that consistently gets her laurels from liberal interest groups and raspberries from conservatives.

But she also is a pragmatist.

“She’s good at counting noses, which means that she’ll do everything she can to represent the whole caucus,” said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “She’ll have to.”

California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, one the so-called Blue Dog Democrats who advocate fiscal restraint, said Pelosi recognizes that “in order for her to have a successful speakership, she will have to continue to embrace the moderates in the caucus.” He is quick to point out that Pelosi has promised to make an early push for reinstating “pay-as-you-go” budgeting rules that require new spending to be offset by raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere.

But, as if to show the difficulty of Pelosi’s task, he also notes, “We’re not elected to be controlled; we’re elected to represent our districts.”