By Glenn Thrush
Nancy Pelosi, whose steel-and-satin political style was shaped by a childhood in the Democratic clubhouses of Baltimore and the chardonnay fundraising circuit in 1980s San Francisco, is living the paradox of a politician whose dreams are about to come true.
The first female speaker of the House is at the apex of her power, with a newly expanded 257-178 Democratic majority, a seemingly firm grip on her caucus and a broad national consensus for bold -- even unprecedented -- congressional action.
But a perch on the mountaintop often comes with altitude sickness.
Among Pelosi's new headaches: coordinating the biggest domestic spending spree in history with an untested new president, keeping newly elected Democrats in conservative districts from being labeled liberal tax-and-spenders for their “yes” votes -- and accomplishing all this without her top leg-breaker and backslapper, Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff.
“She's been working her entire career to be at this point -- a speaker with a big enough majority that she can actually do something,” said Pelosi biographer Marc Sandalow, who tracked the California Democrat's career for two decades as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Even though she agrees with Obama on almost everything, it's going to be interesting to see if the Age of Pelosi collides with the Age of Obama,” he added.
In mid-December, Pelosi and several of her top lieutenants sat down with President-elect Barack Obama's legislative affairs chief, Phil Schiliro, to choreograph the complex first movements of the Pelosi-Obama legislative pas de deux.
The mood was relaxed and friendly, but the speaker made it quite clear that she thought the Obama camp was sending mixed signals on how it planned to push the long-delayed extension of State Children's Health Insurance Program.
“She said everybody -- everybody -- needs to be on the same page, that we can't afford to have our signals crossed,” said a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She wants to make sure the administration speaks with one voice. ... We need to score a series of quick victories out of the box.”
The fate of the country -- not to mention the shiny larger Democratic majorities in both houses -- rides on the success of the Pelosi-Obama partnership, according to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whom Pelosi recently cajoled into serving a second term at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Our political fortunes are tied to Barack Obama's. It's impossible to overstate that,” Van Hollen said.
“The 2010 midterm [elections] will show us not only how Congress did but how successful the administration was,” he added. “In every respect, it will be a midterm report card not only on the Congress but on the White House, too.”
Another Pelosi insider put it more bluntly: Obama and Pelosi “have a joint vision of how the country should be governed -- but that doesn't mean she plans to be pushed around.”
Pelosi has spent much of the past decade consolidating her power and imposing uncharacteristic order and discipline (including the forced substitutions of “we” for “I” at news conferences) on a Democratic Caucus long known for its feral, self-defeating unpredictability.
Elements of her management style are already legendary. Pelosi seldom forgets a slight or a fight, as evidenced by a three-decade running battle with Rep. Steny H. Hoyer that culminated in a truce after Hoyer defeated Pelosi ally John P. Murtha to become Pelosi's majority leader.
Her decadelong, simmering feud with Michigan Rep. John Dingell ended more successfully for the speaker, when her pal, California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, unseated Dingell as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which will help oversee the restructuring of Detroit's crippled auto industry.
And when Emanuel reportedly began nosing around in House leadership business after jumping on board with Obama, Pelosi politely but firmly reminded him that he was now a member of the executive branch.
But she wouldn't have gotten where she is without a softer side and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Those close to her know her charming alter ego -- call her Nonna Nancy -- a doting grandmother who takes genuine interest in members' personal lives, once surprising a longtime rival by showing up at his wife's funeral and walking a mile with him to the gravesite.
She has a habit of remembering the smallest kindnesses, rewarding friends with handwritten thank-you notes or chocolate cakes. She has a playful side, even dragging Hoyer and Dingell onto the dance floor during a congressional retreat a few years back to defuse tension.
Still, every second of her reign -- up until the moment Obama lays a hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible -- has been spent in opposition to a Republican president. It's not yet clear how Pelosi's sweet-and-sour style will work in a Washington where Democrats actually rule.
“The interesting thing about her, and it may be a saving grace, is that she doesn't have a huge ego,” said Sandalow. “She cares about getting things done, not getting credit.”
And getting things done in Pelosi's mind means the tightest possible coordination with Obama, aides and allies say, to push through most of the program before Republicans in the Senate have a chance to counterattack. The strategy has obvious parallels to FDR's first 100 days -- but it also hearkens back to the approach adopted by Bill Walsh, like Pelosi a San Francisco icon. The late 49ers coach was famous for scripting his first 15 or 20 offensive plays of a game.
Pelosi plans to push through bills that already have broad support in her own caucus, starting with the extension of the children's health insurance program. That will be followed by the behemoth: the massive $675 billion to $775 billion economic stimulus package.
From there, it's on to a re-examination of the bank bailouts and new funding bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scope of which will largely be determined by Obama's national security team.
The most controversial of Obama's big-ticket agenda items -- health care reform and a clean energy bill -- aren't likely to be taken up until much later, leadership aides told Politico.
The House rules foster an illusion of autocracy, but its annals are littered with leonine speakers -- Joe Cannon, John McCormack and Newt Gingrich, to name three -- who failed to tend to their members' interests and paid with their jobs.
While Pelosi is committed to Obama's success, she has made it known to the president-elect's team that she needs to protect her members, particularly those in marginal districts who will be vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections. She also needs to keep an eye out for a revolt from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who will need assurance that she pays some attention to the principle of pay-as-you-go government in an age of trillion-dollar annual deficits.
“Her principal challenge over the next two years will be from the pay-go members, who will want to know the serial number of every penny she spends,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “How she reconciles that conflict will be key.”
That's why her team spent much of the holidays working on the creation of a high-profile oversight and accountability system for the stimulus plan. The system would be modeled on the watchdog panel created to oversee the redevelopment of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Typically, those provisions would be folded into the stimulus bill, but Pelosi is now mulling a stand-alone accountability measure that would showcase Democrats' commitment to serious oversight -- and assuage Blue Dogs appalled by the lack of meaningful oversight in the bank bailouts.