By Marianne Means
In her first month as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi is demonstrating the spine and skill that prove she is no female lummox of the left.
Sorry, GOP, she's not just another nothingburger Dennis Hastert in a skirt.
Based on her performance, she is much smarter than her undistinguished Republican predecessor, who was little more than a superficially amiable front-man for the narrow-minded right-wingers who really ran the party.
She is more collegial, focused on getting serious things done. And heaven knows, she has far more in the way of personality, energy and collegial instincts to keep her diverse caucus moving.
Pelosi, 66, initially stumbled by endorsing an ally, Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.), as majority leader. He lost that contest badly to Pelosi's deputy, centrist Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.
But Pelosi had made an important point. She was loyal to her allies, she wasn't afraid to take chances and she meant to use her power. No sissy girly she. And Murtha remains an influential voice in the House as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees defense spending.
The move didn't visibly hurt her with her caucus, although those who underestimate women had a brief ha-ha.
She then proceeded to push through the legislative list she had promised for the first 100 days of Democratic House control. The important thing was she got votes from moderates and Republicans, not just liberals.
So much for the Republican trash talk that as leader she would drive the Democratic party over a left-wing cliff. She represents a liberal San Francisco district, but she is the daughter of a blue-collar Baltimore mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., and pragmatic politics is in her blood.
She has played House politics the bare-knuckle way the Republicans did, so far without the accompanying ethics problems.
Republicans who thought she would be easy pickings are learning differently. They are reduced to complaining about the partisan limitations on their minority status and her desire for a secure Air Force plane to ferry her home to her district.
Pelosi is determined to hold the House majority (and her speakership), which means keeping Democratic moderates in conservative districts happily on board. She's not going to make the GOP mistake of dissing those who occasionally stray to survive.
So while measures such as increasing the minimum wage have a broad appeal and were easy to pass, some fine-tuning to get that package (and others) to the president's desk will be more difficult.
The House passed the first increase in the minimum wage in nearly a decade on a 360-45 vote with relatively modest credits and deductions to compensate restaurants and small businesses $1.3 billion over 10 years. But the Senate is demanding an $8.3 billion business tax break for its support of a higher minimum wage, which most Democrats consider excessive. Pelosi's talent for compromise will be on the line on this one.
Iraq poses an even bigger problem.
When Pelosi supported restrictions on an additional $93 billion for the Iraq war, Vice President Cheney complained that any such conditions would 'validate' the terrorist strategy.
Pelosi raged that Cheney's words were 'beneath the dignity of the debate we're engaged in and a disservice to our men and women in uniform, whom we all support.' She vowed at a news conference that since President Bush had urged her to call him when an administration official questioned Democrats' patriotism, she would call the White House to protest. But the president didn't answer her call - no surprise there! - so she had to settle for chief of staff Josh Bolten, who patronizingly told her Cheney was not questioning her commitment to national security.
So what exactly was it he was saying, then? And why wouldn't the president talk to Pelosi himself?
Incredibly, Cheney also said Britain's plans to withdraw about 1,600 troops were actually a positive step - 'an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well.'
Pelosi may not have won the phone-call incident, but she had the last response to that delusional remark. 'If it's going so well, we'd like to withdraw our troops as well,' she snapped.
It takes a tough politician to be a great speaker, and so far she's got the goods. Hastert never came close.
By Marianne Means