Pelosi Thinks Lioness as Speaker Does What Rayburn Never Did

Pelosi Success Makes Her A Powerful Speaker
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Nancy Pelosi keeps a watchful eye on her cubs. She marks milestones in their personal lives and pays close attention to the politics back home. She can be fiercely protective and stern in her demands.

“Think lioness,” she said.

That combination of personal touch and hands-on management has made Pelosi, a California Democrat and the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the chamber’s most powerful leader since Sam Rayburn died in 1961.

“She is a hell of a lot more effective speaker than Sam Rayburn,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has written books on Congress. “She got her party to do things that Sam Rayburn couldn’t,” he said, referring to the Texas Democrat whose 17-year tenure as speaker was the longest in history.

House Democrats passed legislation overhauling the nation’s health-care system in March without a Republican vote. They also approved the most sweeping overhaul of financial rules since the Great Depression; an $862 billion economic-stimulus package; billions of dollars in assistance to automakers, and legislation that would cap carbon emissions and generate funds for renewable energy development.

That success hasn’t helped her party’s popularity with voters, and Pelosi, 70, faces the prospect of ceding her speakership if Republicans gain a net 40 seats in the November elections.

‘Fire Pelosi’

Republicans have targeted her for attacks in their campaign to regain control of Congress -- “Fire Pelosi” signs bedeck the windows of the Republican National Committee building on Capitol Hill. They say she has succeeded by denying them access to the process, a charge Pelosi herself made when she was in the minority until becoming speaker in 2007.

“Speaker Pelosi owns the responsibility for the one-sided liberal Democratic agenda that has been jammed through this Congress,” said Indiana Representative Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Pelosi, who has represented her San Francisco district in Congress since 1987, acknowledges voters’ unease over the broad legislative measures.

“People want change, but they are also menaced by change,” she said during an hour-long interview July 14 in her Capitol office.

Still, while she describes herself as a liberal, her record suggests a more pragmatic approach to politics. During the health-care debate, she cut a deal with abortion opponents that made her closest allies bristle because it was the only way to corral the votes she needed to pass the bill in the House.

Talking to CEOs

Critics paint her as a tax-and-spend ideologue whose policies make U.S. business less competitive. Yet she trades ideas with John Chambers, chief executive officer of San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems Inc., and Vinod Khosla, founder of Menlo Park, California-based venture capital firm Khosla Ventures.

During a July 19 rally in Philadelphia, Vice President Joseph Biden called Pelosi “the most powerful person in American politics” next to President Barack Obama. Said Biden: “The single most successful, the single most persuasive, the single most strategic leader I have ever worked with is Nancy Pelosi.”

By that measure, she meets the criteria set forth by former Vice President Dick Cheney and wife Lynne, who wrote in their 1983 book “Kings of the Hill” that strong leaders “impose order on an institution so large its natural tendency is toward chaos.”

Disparate Caucus

Pelosi draws power to impose order partly from her ability to listen.

In her office, she treats visitors to a view down the National Mall. During the interview, the sun reflected off the Washington Monument in the distance. She sat with her back to the window, occasionally turning to monitor a bank of televisions that included a live C-SPAN feed from the House floor.

“We have every disparity you can name -- generational, geographic, gender, ethnic, philosophical,” she said of her caucus. “You have to be respectful of other opinions.”

During the health-care debate, Democrats held more than 100 meetings to discuss the legislation. Pelosi attended almost every one and was often the last to leave.

“There are sometimes lots of people in the room,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and close ally. “The speaker knows who’s there and who isn’t.”

Saying ‘No’

“She’s very attuned to her members,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California, who helped write the health-care bill.

She delighted in the recent birth of a daughter to Maryland Representative Frank Kratovil, one of many first-term Democrats facing a tough re-election fight. “They have four sons,” Pelosi said. “Nothing like a new baby to be a good tonic.”

The speaker, married to investment banker Paul Pelosi and mother of five grown children, has eight grandchildren.

Her attention to colleagues engenders trust when Pelosi has to tell lawmakers “no,” Democrats say. She helped advocates of government-run health care build support for versions of the so-called public option until it was clear the votes weren’t there.

“Then she had to turn around to them and say, ‘Are you willing to sacrifice all the important things in this bill if you can’t get the public option?’” Waxman said. “And, of course, the answer had to be ‘no.’”

Progressive Pragmatist

This month, she overcame differences within her caucus to secure $37 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the process, she gave war opponents a vote on an amendment requiring Obama to produce a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The amendment failed, even after Pelosi cast a rare vote to support it.

“She came out of the progressive wing of the party, but she’s a pragmatist,” said Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who heads the House Democratic campaign committee. “She’s able to find the center.”

The differences among Democrats become a bigger impediment as the election approaches. The leadership was forced to strip billions of dollars from a job-creation bill to win the support of party members concerned about the deficit. And even if Democrats hold the House, they’re likely to lose seats, giving Pelosi a narrower margin to pass bills.

If need be, she can play the role of enforcer.

Upbraiding Colleagues

The daughter of the late-Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., Pelosi learned politics by watching her father navigate the city’s ethnic wards. She built a reputation for discipline during the Democrats’ final years as the minority in the House, pressuring members to vote with the party to make it harder for Republicans to pass bills, including a plan to overhaul Social Security in 2005. While she has been more accommodating in the majority, the iron fist remains.

She has been known to upbraid colleagues who step out of line, once reprimanding fellow Californian Bob Filner after he voted against her on an ethics bill. During the health-care debate, she forced her members to attend a caucus meeting and had each one say out loud how he or she planned to vote.

She passed over Representative Jane Harman of California for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee after Harman sparked complaints from Democrats that she hadn’t been critical enough of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

Caught by Surprise

There’s even been tension with the White House.

In January, she was angry when she learned White House aides were circulating a stripped-down health-care bill after Democrats lost their 60th Senate vote following Republican Scott Brown’s special election victory in Massachusetts.

“The speaker was furious when she heard about the idea that they might want to go for a smaller bill,” Waxman said. “She kept saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to do that.’”

Resentment flared up again after Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, suggested Democrats could lose control of the House, during a July 11 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Shortly afterward, Pelosi rebuked administration staff during a closed-door caucus meeting, according to members and aides present. She offered a back-handed rebuttal, telling Bloomberg News, “You know what? I don’t comment on employees of the White House.”

Pelosi’s pull also results from fundraising: Since 2002, she has raised $189 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and individual candidates, according to figures from the committee. Since the 2010 election, she has collected $35.2 million.

She knows money is finite, though, and that she may have to cut some members loose as the elections approach. She told Van Hollen not to worry about breaking the bad news.

“I told him he can blame the tough ones on me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a very cold-blooded operation.”