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NPR: Health Care Overhaul Boosts Pelosi's Clout

By Andrea Seabrook

With the passage of the measure to overhaul health care, Nancy Pelosi's speakership is being touted as one of the most accomplished and effective. She has earned great praise and admiration from friends and opponents alike -- but it comes at a cost.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

President Obama, when he signed the health care bill into law, gave a lot of the credit for passing the legislation to...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the best speakers the House of Representatives has ever had...

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

KELLY: NPR's Andrea Seabrook brings us this profile of Speaker Pelosi and the battle to pass the Democrats' health care plan.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Here's what Nancy Pelosi's colleagues think of her:

Representative Joe BARTON (Republican, Texas): She's a very friendly person, a very caring person.

Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): She's fair.

Representative ALLEN BOYD (Democrat, Florida): Tough.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): Gracious.

Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): Very smart.

Representative ROSA DELAURO (Democrat, Connecticut): Strong and a spine of steel.

SEABROOK: And that's not just the ones who love her. That was Texas Republican Joe Barton, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, Florida Democrat Allen Boyd, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer and Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro. The only hint of criticism I could get on tape came from House Republican leader John Boehner. He would say only this...

Republican JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): She's a very powerful woman.

SEABROOK: There was much evidence of that power throughout the debate. Some lawmakers feel stepped on, others a bit sold out. But all of her colleagues marvel at her ability to shuffle votes among the disparate parts of the Democratic Caucus and come up with a majority.

To get the original House health care bill through she had to get liberal Democrats to vote for conservative, stricter abortion language. Then when it came to the final votes, she had to get conservative Democrats to vote for the liberals' looser abortion language.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): She understands the DNA of the Democratic Caucus.

SEABROOK: Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: She was able to see through the thicket of the immediate political problems and all the hand wringing to see that we could fight our way through.

SEABROOK: Van Hollen believes Pelosi was responsible for raising health care from the ashes after the Democrats lost their 60-seat majority in the Senate. The party was shell-shocked, says Van Hollen, when Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate race for Ted Kennedy's old seat. Almost immediately, pundits called it the death of health care, a referendum on Democrats year-long struggle to come up with a bill.

In private meetings, Democratic chairmen and some in the White House pressed for a new strategy. Let's make change in smaller increments, they said, pieces that are easier for the public swallow - but not Pelosi. When everything looked dark, the speaker made a speech in front of the entire Democratic Caucus, where she pressed lawmakers to keep their focus. According to Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, the speaker said...

Rep. DELAURO: We will take each moment as it comes. We will work it through. And we will cross the finish line on health care.

SEABROOK: After that, DeLauro and others say, Pelosi began an unbelievable marathon of meetings that would last two months. She hunkered down with the House Progressive Caucus, the Conservative Blue Dog Coalition, regional groups, anti-abortion lawmakers. Van Hollen says she would gather people in a room and keep them there until they reached agreement.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Very literally, there are people who you can sometimes see trying to sneak out of the door in the room and she will see them out of the corner of the eye and say, hey, where do you think you're going right now? Get back in here. We have to finish this discussion.

SEABROOK: Many people who were in those meetings cite Pelosi's experience as a mother and a grandmother as being essential to the task.

Rep. DELAURO: She has eyes in the back of her head.

SEABROOK: DeLauro says in those meetings, whether it was a small group of the entire House Democratic Caucus...

Rep. DELAURO: She knows who's there and who isn't there, and she knows what people have said or not said, and so she anticipates what is happening or what people are thinking or saying.

SEABROOK: And slowly, the votes came together. It was at this time that Pelosi was asked at a press conference: At what point do you give up? When do you start whipping for votes?

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): I never stop whipping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. PELOSI: There's no beginning, there's no middle, and there's no end. My life is a constant whip operation.

SEABROOK: And, well, by now, the success of her whip operation is well known. Last week, the health care bill and all its fixes passed through the House and went on to the president's desk. Here is how Pelosi responds when asked about the president calling her one of the most effective House speakers in history.

Rep. PELOSI: I knew I came here to vote for health care for all Americans. That has been a pillar of who I am and who we are as Democrats, but I didn't think I would be leading the way as Speaker of the House, that's for sure. But let me give credit where it is due: the president of the United States. Without the leadership of President Obama, we would not be where we are today.

SEABROOK: Still, with the passage of health care, Pelosi goes from being the first woman speaker to the first speaker of any gender to pass such sweeping change in many decades. That's not to say she didn't survive it in a distinctly feminine way.

Rep. PELOSI: How did I function through this? Chocolate - very, very dark chocolate.

SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.