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When Harry met Nancy: D.C.'s power couple

The Democratic odd couple leading the U.S. Congress has struggled to make its political marriage productive since rising to power in January.
US Senate to debate defense spending bill
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seen in July, find themselves in a relationship that is both productive and aggravating.Stefan Zaklin / EPA
/ Source: Reuters

The Democratic odd couple leading the U.S. Congress has struggled to make its political marriage productive since rising to power in January.

Now with Washington deadlocked on Iraq and other matters, polls show Americans more frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi than the two have been with each other.

"We have great hurdles to overcome," Reid, flanked by Pelosi, said in sizing up the battles Democrats face when lawmakers return from their summer recess this week.

Polls show only about one in five Americans approve of the Democratic-led Congress, a rating even below the unpopular President George W. Bush, and Reid and Pelosi are poised to again challenge Bush on the unpopular Iraq war.

They will also seek to win congressional approval of proposed Democratic hikes in domestic spending on matters from education to health care and the environment that Bush has threatened to veto.

A pair of 67-year-olds, Reid and Pelosi are a power couple as well as an odd couple — with a relationship that has been both productive and aggravating since Democrats took control of Congress early this year from Bush's Republicans.

"They get frustrated with each other," a party leader said. "But they are very aware that they have to work together closely and are inclined to work together."

Another party aide put it this way. "Pelosi is calculating; Reid is impulsive. ... But they've developed a good give and take and talk to each other two or three times a day."

Privately, they refer to each other as "Harry" and "Nancy," while in public it is "Madam Speaker" and "the distinguished Senate majority leader."

The crusty Reid often comes across as more blunt, Pelosi as more refined. Both are tough and action oriented.

A natural fighter
Reid is a Nevada moderate of humble roots who became an amateur boxer and later earned a law degree while working as a U.S. Capitol policeman. "I always would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight," Reid says.

Pelosi is a California liberal and the product of a politically powerful family, the first female House speaker. She describes herself as a mother and grandmother.

"We're a team," pronounced a beaming Pelosi, standing beside the more taciturn Reid.

There have been issues.

"Can't she count votes?" party aides quoted Reid as saying after Pelosi unsuccessfully backed Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha over Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer in a Democratic leadership race, causing a temporary division within the ranks shortly after the party won Congress last November.

When Reid ignited a political firestorm in April by declaring, "This (Iraq) war is lost" — making it look to some that Democrats had given up — Pelosi winced, "Why does he say stuff like that?" party aides recounted.

Reid said he meant the war was lost unless Bush changed course. He and she favor a political solution.

On the plus side, they have helped win passage of some major measures, including an increase in the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, long-stalled security recommendations from the 9/11 commission and tougher congressional ethics laws.

"They have worked out a good, solid, professional, friendly relationship," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

September 'will be a big test'
"But it is inevitable that serious tension between the two lies ahead because they represent two very different institutions," Ornstein said. "(September) will be a big test."

Their two sides of Capitol Hill are quite different.

Pelosi can shove through legislation in the House, held by Democrats, 231-202, on a simple majority vote. Democrats control the Senate, too, 51-49. But the rules there require Reid to muster 60 votes to clear Republican procedural roadblocks.

Largely because of these roadblocks and Bush vetoes, Reid and Pelosi have been unable to deliver on a key campaign vow to begin redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq, drawing voter ire.

"Because of the obstructionism of the Republicans in the United States Senate, I'm not happy with Congress either," Pelosi said recently.

A poll by the Pew Research Center has since heartened the Democrats, finding that half those questioned remain happy the party took over.

The survey found Americans less than thrilled with Pelosi or Reid, however. Only 35 percent approved of Pelosi's job performance, while 37 percent disapproved. Just 21 percent approved of Reid while 33 percent disapproved.

"The biggest thing is the public's frustration with Iraq," said pollster Andrew Kohut. "People expected them to achieve things, they expected them to achieve a way out of Iraq."