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Rep. Pelosi poised to make history

NBC's Brian Williams sits down with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is poised to be the first female speaker of the House in the new Congress. This is a transcript of their conversation.
/ Source: NBC News

Tuesday's election was one for the history books, in so many ways. The nation has a new presumptive speaker of the House, the first woman in that job. And as Nancy Pelosi reminded us when we sat down with her in the Capitol building today, she's the first Italian-American as well. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Brian Williams: Leader, thank you for doing this.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: My pleasure!  Thank you for coming down! I'm honored.

Williams: You are referring to yourself as presumptive leader?

Pelosi: Speaker-elect, he called me.

Williams: Tell us about, first of all, your phone call from the president, I understand at an early hour this morning. How much sleep had you both had?

Pelosi: I don't know about the president, I understand he goes to bed early. I don't know if he did last night, on election night, but I didn't have much sleep, but I didn't need much. I was very exhilarated by the outcome of the election — the Democratic victory.

Williams: Would you concur with the president that the call was cordial?

Pelosi: Oh, yes, the call was friendly. He extended a hand of friendship, which I reciprocated, and told him what I had said earlier in the evening, that I look forward to working with him in partnership, not in partisanship, and that we have important challenges that we have to address in a bipartisan way to help the American people.

Williams: Leader, what does "drain the swamp" mean?

Pelosi: "Drain the swamp" means to turn this Congress into the most honest and open Congress in history. That's my pledge — that is what I intend to do.

Williams: What about last night's result gives you a mandate to do it?

Pelosi: One of the reasons people gave when they exited polls yesterday, but more importantly, one of the sentiments that I think in a bipartisan way was shared across our country, is a need for more honesty and integrity in government. Also more civility and bipartisanship. And that, again, is part of our way — we'll go forward with civility, with honesty, with integrity and with fiscal discipline. No new deficit spending, no new bridges to nowhere, heaping mountains of debt on our children. 

Williams: You woke up this morning, called for new civilian leadership at the Pentagon. You got it. Mr. Rumsfeld will be replaced. What, in terms of the way politics works, what do you give them?

Pelosi: What do we give them?

Williams: For Rumsfeld?

Pelosi: Well, the point is they responded to voice and vote of the American people, [who] resoundingly rejected the policy and the implementation of it. They weren't responding to Democrats, they were responding to American people and to the military — Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force Times all said on Monday, Rumsfeld must go.

Williams: Are you hyper-aware of the need to be seen getting along, at least avoiding this partisan conflict that has so marked the last few years?

Pelosi: Well, I may be hyper-aware of it, but that is my inclination. I came to Congress 19 years ago to debate the great ideas, to work for the benefit of the people and to find common ground in a bipartisan way. Stand our ground when we don't find it on principle. But this fierce partisanship really does not do justice to the vows of our founders or the wishes of the American people.

Williams: I'm guessing it's not lost on the Democrats, that as quickly as power was gained last night, it can be lost again in two years, depending on how it's handled.

Pelosi: That's exactly right, and I think the American people spoke last night. It was a victory for them, really. And Democrats heard them. And they spoke for more honest government, for a change of direction in Iraq, for a fair economy and a really safer America. And we will not disappoint them.

Williams: Do you think we have a 50-50 country still?

Pelosi: In terms of political identification, perhaps, but we all strive for a more perfect union, which is the first goal of the Preamble to the Constitution; to form a more perfect union. And I think in the people's minds and in their hearts, that we consider ourselves Americans before we consider ourselves Democrats or Republicans. That's for sure.

Williams: How do you prevent the men and women serving so bravely in Iraq from thinking they are part of some failed effort, knowing it is not them, it is a policy difference they are seeing back in Washington?

Pelosi: Well, I think that what you won't see is a cutting off of funds for them. They are in harm's way. They didn't form the policy, but they are in harm's way, and we support them. We revere and honor the memory of all who have lost lives there. We are concerned about the 20,000 who are now injured in Iraq and their courage, their sacrifice, their patriotism is something that is respected by all of us, whether we agree with the policy or not. But we have a responsibility to them to do two things: to find a solution in Iraq and do it, hopefully, in a bipartisan way and secondly, to build a future worthy of their sacrifice. And that future includes honoring the commitments made to them when they come home.

Williams: When you meet with the president in the Oval Office later this week, which is his home field advantage, you have your own here on Capitol Hill, what will you say to him?

Pelosi: Well, again, I will say to the president part of what we have proposed in this campaign is more civility, more bipartisanship, more discourse and less discord in the debate. We have big issues that we must deal with soon and we can do in a comprehensive, bipartisan way. For example, immigration, we have our "Six for '06," which includes energy independence — something I know the president supports. So we have plenty of real common ground that we can find first to show effectiveness, to show bipartisanship and to make a difference in the lives of the American people because it's all about them

Williams: Let's talk about history, because I know history was riding along with you as you watched the results last night. I know you have thought today about your father and your own children and grandchildren. Tell me your thoughts.

Pelosi: Well, as you may know, I was raised in an Italian Catholic family in Baltimore, Maryland. My father was in Congress when I was born. He was mayor my whole life from when I was in grade school -- first grade -- to when I went away to college. And our faith was very important to us -- our patriotism, our love of faith, our love of country. We took pride in our Italian-American heritage and to be the first woman speaker and the first Italian-American speaker of the House, it's quite thrilling for me. In addition, of course, to being a Democratic speaker of the House.

Williams: How will we see that manifest? How will the Hill be different? Washington? The country? Now that we do have these firsts.

Pelosi: You know, Washington and Congress are steeped in history and tradition and that's been very male-oriented. I have now broken the marble ceiling — the toughest ceiling of all — and I hope that in doing so, I will perform my duties as speaker with again, integrity, with civility, fiscal discipline and in a way that makes a difference in the lives of the American people — that we are here for them — for people's interest, not special interest. And I have said when I receive that gavel, on the first day of Congress, that I will receive on behalf of all of America's children and the knowledge and responsibility and accountability that we have to them to make the future better. I think that's a new direction here.

Williams: Share with the folks watching this drama that's been unfolding in New York while you've been a little busy here in Washington and points west.

Pelosi: Well, I have been busy here in Washington and points west in this campaign, but everybody knew, whether it was my staff or the people who I was to appear for, that the minute I got the call, I would rush to New York because my daughter would be having our sixth grandchild — her first baby. So, with every family, first things first. It's such an excitement to have this new baby — that it comes at a time when we are starting a new Congress is, I think, a good omen — a constant reminder that we're here for the children. They're a constant inspiration. We're responsible to them to build a better future. But to get right back to being the grandmother Speaker of the House, I think it's about time we had an Italian-American grandmother speaker of the House — one with a brand new baby to energize.

Williams: Back on the business side. How much was last night's vote about an issue like stem cells?

Pelosi: Each election is different in the House races. So we have our "Six for '06," minimum wage and the economy in certain districts. Stem cell research and affordability of health care in other districts. But in most places in the country, the issues address the concerns of America's working families. And one big concern they have is, of course, the direction we're going in Iraq because of the loss of life and limb and reputation and dollars and the opportunity cost that that war is foisting on the United States. You analyze these races one race at a time, but there is no question that the war in Iraq has become an issue in every family in America because of the priorities that are neglected and because of the failure of the policy there.

Williams: Will you be able to govern a Democratic Party in the House that has been out of power now for quite a while? You have all kinds of disparate interests reporting to you and your gavel.

Pelosi: The beauty of the Democratic Party is in the mix. The diversity that we have is our strength and when we reach consensus — and that's how we build our unity, by discussing it among ourselves and building consensus — nothing comes from on high in the Democratic Party. It's a Democratic process. When we reach our unity on an issue, we are very, very strong and we did last year on Social Security. We fought the president successfully on that. And we have our unity around "Six for '06" — our energy independence, our innovation agenda. We have plenty of areas of agreement to go forward. But make no mistake, I say to our members of Congress — each of them and our new members who are coming in — you are all independent representatives of your districts. Your title and your job description is one and the same — representative. We need the vitality and the dynamism of all the disparate thinking of our country to reach consensus that is very strong for a public policy that meets the needs of the American people.

Williams: How do you play the tricky business of overplaying the Democrats' hand with power here to the party for two years?

Pelosi: Well, you know, people have said there are people who want to get even and this or that, and to those people, I say the Democrats are not about getting even. They're about helping the Americans get ahead, and that's what motivates us. There is nothing to be gained in looking backward. We're looking forward all of us together, and our unity is our most eloquent message, and I feel very confident in our ability to continue that unity.

Williams: Are you personally as sick and tired as so many Americans seem to be of the difference between the parties and the tenor?

Pelosi: Well, when you say sick and tired of it, it has no place. This isn't what our founders sacrificed their life, liberty and the rest for. This is supposed to be an arena of ideas where people came and debated the issues, formulated the policy, protected the American people, and built a better future for the next generation. It certainly respected diversity of opinion, but that diversity was not supposed to be an obstacle. It was supposed to be a strength. As a student of American history, as one who was just dazzled by the brilliance of our founders, I want to honor their vision and meet the needs of the American people who expect and deserve better than fierce political battles in Washington that are irrelevant to their lives when they have such tremendous needs.

Williams: You've said some rough things about the president. You have indicated he's a dangerous man, you have intimated he can't be trusted. How do you sit down with this man and reason with him and bargain with him, beginning in the Oval Office this week?

Pelosi: When I go into that office, I will bring with me the wishes of the American people. They want a new direction in Iraq, they want a new direction on our economy. Many more people want to participate in the prosperity of our country. They want American dreams to be fulfilled by having more affordable education, better access to health care. They want energy independence and all that that means for our country. They want a dignified retirement. I'm not bringing a personal agenda, I'm bringing the personal agenda of the American people into that room. I do believe that there has been incompetence in this administration in the war in Iraq and what happened in Katrina and the rest, and I don't hesitate to make that differentiation. We can do better as a country, and I know we can do better if we are working together in a bipartisan way.

Williams: You think they said all of those things with the votes last night?

Pelosi: I think they said a lot about wanting honesty and civility in government, and I think they rejected not only the policy in Iraq, but the incompetence that's gone with it.

Williams: Leader Pelosi, thank you very much for your time.