By Bob Cusack and Mike Soraghan
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stops mid-sentence as the C-SPAN screen that she's had one eye on captures her full attention.
The interview is momentarily on hold as she asks her aides about the next vote.
“I always need to watch the floor,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) explains. The Speaker traditionally doesn't vote, but she's always there to see her “people.”
The lower chamber is commonly called the People's House, but the first female Speaker has made it clear throughout her reign that it is also Pelosi's House.
As a mother of five and grandmother of seven, Pelosi knows how to multitask, and she has her hands in everything: committee assignments, the formulation of legislation, campaign strategies and the resolution of internal Democratic disputes.
Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said, “I've never seen a Speaker as hands-on as Nancy Pelosi.”
Ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Pelosi's predecessor, routinely deferred to his committee chairmen. Pelosi has taken a very different approach.
One of her first actions was to establish a global warming committee, infringing on Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell's (D-Mich.) turf. Dingell, who called the new committee as useful as “feathers on a fish,” subsequently struck a deal with Pelosi that the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming would expire this October.
But asked during last week's interview if the global warming panel will exist in the next Congress, Pelosi responded, “I just talked to [Rep. Michael] Capuano [D-Mass.] as I left the floor to say we really have to get ready our rules for next year and see what we want to do. I haven't even gone to that place. But I am proud of the work that the committee has done. The hearings have enlightened the Congress …”
Pelosi is close to many of her committee chairmen, but they moved up the ranks amid the “old-boy politics,” when “cigarette and cigar smoke choked the air,” according to the Speaker's new book. Pelosi banned smoking in the Capitol last year -- signaling to her chairmen that, at times, she would be treading on their territory.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Pelosi's longtime friend, said, “She has consolidated her power in the caucus. That's very, very important. And she's not a white-knuckle leader. She makes a decision, and then executes it.”
Boyd said he and other Blue Dogs respect how Pelosi handles the diverse caucus, claiming she has led more down the middle compared to when she was minority leader in the last Congress.
“I was not always, but I am now, a Nancy Pelosi fan,” Boyd said.
The Speaker's spacious office is filled with many photos, including her being sworn into Congress by then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and another with John F. Kennedy when she was a schoolgirl. There is also a plastic golf ball from Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert that has the inscription: “To the Madam Speaker -- don't hook left.”
Her new book is aptly titled Know Your Power. In 2007, Pelosi sometimes overestimated her authority, losing high-profile showdowns with President Bush on the Iraq war and, later, the budget.
In 2008, the headlines have not been about Pelosi caving. Instead, it is Bush who has changed his mind, embracing the housing bill, legislation that halted further deposits into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the GI bill. Congressional Republicans abandoned Bush on the farm bill and the Medicare physician measure, leading to two recent veto overrides.
Pelosi also trumped Bush on the Colombia trade deal he sent to the Hill, killing it through a procedural motion.
Pelosi defends the 2007 track record, particularly the energy legislation signed by Bush in December: “We had a good year; we passed the energy bill, and that was hard. That was a very difficult bill. … First CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards bill in 32 years.”
Yet Democrats have been more aggressive this year, and while the Senate dictated most of the legislation that was signed into law in 2007, House Democrats have been more of a force in 2008.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said, “Last year was the year we made our mark. This year is the year we've done the hard work.”
Bush certainly hasn't gone winless this year, but Pelosi and her counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have picked their battles more wisely. They knew Bush would triumph on the war supplemental and the overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), so they loaded up the supplemental with domestic policy provisions their caucus supported and said the FISA deal was the best they could get.
Amid the backlash from the left on FISA, Pelosi provided some cover to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) by endorsing, and later voting for, the FISA compromise.
The Speaker's flagship issue is energy, most notably combating global warming. The prospects of that bill becoming law in the next Congress have taken a hit this year because voters are more concerned about rising gas prices than global warming.
Pelosi's tone sharpens when pressed on drilling-related legislation.
Asked why she won't allow for GOP drilling bills that would likely pass, Pelosi attacks the premise of the query: “You don't know that.” She cites several bills that most thought would not pass, but did.
She said, “Everybody told us we could never pass a protective standards bill. It was impossible, they told us. We could never pass a renewable portfolio standard -- and it passed, and many more Republicans voted with us, more than they suspected.”
And she doesn't buy that the Democratic approach is a loser with voters.
“They don't say drill in environmentally protected areas,” Pelosi said. “Two-to-one would say, ‘Let's drill to bring down the price at the pump,' and about two-to-one over that would say, ‘Invest in renewables.' Renewables, I think, would change [prices] quicker than drilling.”
Throughout her career, Pelosi -- whose mother wanted her to be a nun -- hasn't shied away from fights. She went up against the Clinton administration on permanent normal trade relations with China and rallied her Democratic colleagues to vote against the Iraq war in 2002.
In 2006, her successful effort to remove embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from the Ways and Means Committee triggered a battle with the Congressional Black Caucus.
And when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) this spring was talking about a convention floor fight with Obama, Pelosi, the Democratic National Convention chairwoman, said no such battle would take place.
Pelosi has long been a lightning rod amid conservative circles, a boogeywoman of sorts for the right. However, she doesn't appear to take criticism personally, perhaps because she saw her father take a lot of arrows in the back when he served in Congress and as the mayor of Baltimore.
During her initial hard-fought primary for Congress, some of her friends told her, “You'll never believe the mailer I got against you! It's horrible!”
Pelosi, according to her book, responded, “If you have a problem with it, go out and recruit volunteers and raise money for my campaign.”
Pelosi is in a position to grow her majority this November and preside over one of the busiest Congresses in 2009 and 2010, should Obama win.
Four years ago, Pelosi guaranteed on national television that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would defeat Bush.
This time around, she is a bit more cautious: “Let me say this, if the election were today, Obama would win the election and we would pick up seats.”
Asked if she is worried about anything happening between now and the elections, Pelosi responded, “I'm not worried about anything. … I know that we're going to strengthen our majority.”
As tensions have flared within the House GOP leadership about the performance of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Pelosi has worked well with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), her handpicked chief of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Knowing that it is rare for either party to pick up a net of double-digit House seats during any election year, Pelosi wants to take advantage of the public's distaste for the GOP in 2008. The game plan envisions Obama becoming president and then defending the bolstered House majority in the 2010 midterms, when the party in the White House is historically on the defensive.
Pelosi's enthusiasm for Obama is evident as the TV screen shows a large crowd in Berlin to hear the Illinois senator's speech last Thursday.
“Look at all those people! I wish I could watch it,” she said.
But she can't, at least not now. Pelosi is headed back to the House floor to see her people.
Excerpts of interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Q. You support a troop withdrawal timetable for Iraq. Do you support a timetable for Afghanistan?
Q. Should we stay there indefinitely?
A. The president has turned his attention away from Afghanistan … this is one of the tragedies of the war of Iraq. The opportunity that we had there that we lost is really tragic. … We certainly do not have the product of success that we need there.
Q. The global warming committee that you created last year is slated to expire at the end of October. Will that panel exist in the next Congress?
A. I guess this session is coming to an end. I just talked to Mr. [Michael] Capuano [D-Mass.] as I left the floor to say we really have to get ready for our rules for next year and see what we want to do. I haven't even gone to that place. But I am proud of the work that the committee has done.
Q. A House subcommittee recently held a hearing on “Don't ask, don't tell.” Will that issue be a priority in the next session?
A. We're collecting information on the subject … I think our priority for next session will be pulling our troops out of Iraq, bringing stability to [the] region, security to America and to rebuild the capability of our military. That's our first responsibility. And then after that, we have to adjust the needs for our economy.
Q. There have been a handful of states that have formally apologized for slavery, and there is a pending measure by Rep. Steve Cohen [D-Tenn.] that calls for that. Is it time for Congress to apologize for slavery?
A. I think that Congress should apologize every single day. We passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, a pay equity bill [this] week that will affect minority people, and so we express our apology by trying to redress past grievances. I haven't seen Mr. Cohen's bill, don't know what he actually says -- I'll be receptive to looking into something like that.
[The House is scheduled to vote on Cohen's resolution this week.]