By Tory Newmyer
Nancy Pelosi is riding high.
Coming off a series of legislative wins -- most recently last week, after President Bush backed off his veto threat on a Democrat-backed housing bill -- and entering the homestretch of her first Congress as Speaker, the San Francisco Democrat can scarcely find a flaw in her own performance. Asked to name her greatest accomplishment, she spends six minutes ticking off victories on everything from fuel efficiency to veterans' benefits.
And she is brimming with confidence about her party's chances in November -- and the prospects for the future.
“You probably don't want to ask me if I'm emboldened,” Pelosi said in an interview. “I'm probably as bold a person as you will find.”
But much is at stake in the White House race Pelosi expects Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to win. “We will be able to accomplish great things, and we can only do that with a Democratic president,” she said.
Namely, she is counting on an Obama administration to help her bring about the withdrawal from Iraq that Senate Republicans and President Bush stymied during her first two years at the helm of the House.
Democrats reclaimed control of both chambers in part by pledging to end the war. And Pelosi, who opposed the conflict from its outset, has engineered passage of five measures that included timelines to begin redeploying American troops from Iraq. Only one cleared the Senate, last April, and President Bush vetoed it.
She said her biggest regret so far was not pushing harder for the withdrawal language in that bill, the first in this Congress to fund the war. Instead, Congressional Democrats agreed to a compromise that dropped the timetable in return for a boost in domestic spending. But she stopped short of calling that decision a mistake.
“If I had to do one thing over again, I would have tried, but it's not in my power, to send the -- again, we tried it five times -- to send another bill to the Senate to send to the president's desk,” she said. “But the first supplemental that the president vetoed, instead of working with the Senate in a bipartisan way to try to have a bill the president would sign to recognize we need a change in Iraq, we probably should have just sent the bill right back to the president's desk. But that wasn't in my power. And if you want to say it's a mistake that we said to the president we would sit down with his people, we would work with them to try to find common ground, and then the president said ‘I'm not going to do anything on Iraq,' instead of what you might call wasting my time talking to the president's people, I should have said, ‘We'll have that conversation after you veto this bill again.' But again, I couldn't control what happens in the Senate.”
On top of Congressional Democrats' inability to overcome Republican opposition to ending the war, Pelosi called electronic wiretapping legislation -- which essentially cleared telecommunications companies from facing lawsuits over their cooperation with a secret government spying program -- a “difficult” outcome. Pelosi voted for the measure, but most House Democrats did not. She chalked up mixed results on both fronts to Senate intransigence.
“When I say we could have done better, I mean the Congress could have done much better. But I couldn't be prouder of the work of the House Democrats,” she said.
Nevertheless, Pelosi rated her first two years as Speaker a success. She pointed to the creation of a new special committee to address climate change, the passage of a bill to raise fuel efficiency in cars, enactment of the 9/11 commission reforms, a new GI bill, a hike in the minimum wage and bipartisan passage of an economic stimulus package among the highlights. To boot, she said, Democratic unity has remained at record heights.
She declined to give herself a grade on her performance but suggested, perhaps inadvertently, that it would be high. “I give myself the mark I give my colleagues, because it's their consensus and their unity that has made this possible,” she said, later adding, “If you want to give me a grade personally, you give it to me, but in terms of our Members, I give them an A plus.”
The first woman to lead the House, Pelosi has missed few opportunities to assert herself. The day she took up the Speaker's gavel at the start of last year, she launched a drive to overhaul House ethics rules and this year forced through a measure to establish an independent ethics body. She banned smoking in the Speaker's Lobby off the House floor and engineered the Green the Capitol Initiative to make the complex more environmentally friendly.
On the legislative front, Pelosi has more than once seized the initiative from her powerful committee chairmen. In the interview, Pelosi signaled that on one key point, she is not eager to hand it back. The Speaker raised hackles from chairmen last year by deciding to maintain six-year term limits on chairmen that Republicans instituted after their 1994 takeover. But many said they received private assurances from Pelosi that the rule would soon be reconsidered. It hasn't, and Pelosi said she may leave it in place for the next Congress, too.
“We will deal with that issue when we deal with it,” she said. “We don't have to deal with in the next rules package. We may, but we don't have to deal with it in the next rules package.”
Reflecting on the challenges of her job, Pelosi said the demands on her time have been the toughest to negotiate.
“I have almost three jobs,” she said. “I'm the Speaker of the House, so I have a legislative job to do. I am the Democratic political leader in terms of making sure we win this election, and have the resources to do that, and travel the country constantly to do that. And I am a representative of San Francisco still in the Congress, proud to say. So I have to balance those challenges.
“I'm grateful to the people of San Francisco for the latitude they have given me to be Speaker. But it's all a competition for time, not to even mention my personal life, if there is such a thing, and my family has been very generous in that regard. But the one thing that was striking to me was you are not the master of your time. You think you're going to do this, this, this and this, and you're going to have dinner at the end of the day and you're going to have time to visit with folks and reflect on things. But the tyranny of the bells, the demands of the legislative process -- they set the agenda for you.
“It doesn't mean you don't have those meetings and do that. It means it doesn't happen in your good time, it happens according to a legislative schedule. And the political piece of it is almost insatiable. There's just never enough time to accept the invitations, to visit the states, to do the political work to win. But again, that's going excellently as well and I'm very pleased with the response that our Democratic majority has received as I travel around the country.”