By: Jonathan Allen
Nancy Pelosi clapped her hands as she left the House floor late Saturday night.
“That was easy,” the Speaker said with a smile.
It wasn't. She had just delivered a promise decades of her predecessors failed to bring home, harnessing her uncommon focus, vote-counting acumen and consensus-building skills to bring tens of millions of Americans a giant leap closer to having health insurance coverage with a 220-215 roll call.
“Somebody asked me if this was a victory for [President] Barack Obama. It's not. This victory belongs to her,” said Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). “As far as I know she never sleeps nor eats.”
The bill's fate, for now, rests across the Capitol in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But with Saturday's vote, Pelosi proved yet again she is the able master of a Democratic Caucus that is enjoying its greatest political and legislative success since at least the beginning of the Clinton administration and arguably since its legislative heyday in the mid-1960s.
Democrats, including Pelosi, view the push for expanding the government's role in the health care system as a new plank in the social justice platform constructed with Civil Rights, Voting Rights, open housing and Medicare laws enacted during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, when Democrats held similar - and at times even larger -- majorities in the House.
“You, Madam Speaker -- and the leadership -- we thank you for the extraordinary leadership which you have given us in bringing us to the point where we are today,” Rep. John D. Dingell, the dean of the House said on the floor Saturday night. He was praising a woman who helped strip him of his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee less than a year ago and once backed a primary challenger against him in Michigan's 15th District.
For all the work that went into pulling together the votes for the bill - the President, Cabinet secretaries, legions of White House aides, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer's deft touch with conservative Blue Dogs and senior lawmakers, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and his team of vote-counting lieutenants, progressive grassroots organizations and any number of others who could rightly take credit for a piece of the victory - no one could doubt that it took Pelosi's leadership to deliver a congressional vote in favor of a national health care system that eluded President Bill Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Dingell's father, who first introduced such a bill in 1943.
“The President appreciates the Speaker's strong committed leadership without which this historic vote would not have occurred,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told POLITICO in an e-mail as soon as the vote was secured. “Every American who is barred from insurance because of a pre-existing condition, every American who can't afford coverage or is hurt today by out-of-pocket costs that are more than they can bear, owes Nancy Pelosi a debt of gratitude tonight for the leadership she has provided to move us close to a new and better day.”
Her colleagues say Pelosi's drive separates her from her peers.
“Her focus, her vision, her tenacity, her energy,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a onetime rival of Pelosi's, gushed at a post-vote press conference.
It can be seen in her assiduous attention to the details of policy, her willingness to use every tool in a leader's arsenal - persuasion, threat, reward, retribution - to put together coalitions, and her ability to prioritize Democratic principles, her colleagues say.
So driven to win passage of the bill was the liberal, pro-choice progressive that she cut a deal with anti-abortion Democrats to prohibit federal funds from subsidizing the procedure - creating a convention-rattling coalition of the House's Pro-Choice Caucus and the National Right to Life Committee, which threatened to punish Republicans if they played games with the outcome of the amendment to sink the bill.
The Speaker's troops savored the Saturday night victory - and feted a legislative leader known for distributing praise to her deputies. But tonight's victory might prove short-lived if it's not followed by a similar win in the Senate - and Peloi's team wrenched tough votes from reluctant members who know they are likely to face trouble - if not defeat - back home in 2010.
But regardless of the obstacles in the path to enactment, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) said Saturday's vote would be the most important moment of Pelosi's career as Speaker.
'I think this is probably the biggest win she'll have in all the years she serves,' Murtha said of his California colleague. 'This affects every person in the country. Nothing else, not the [Iraq] war, nothing else touches everyone else in the country. This is the biggest thing she'll do.'