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The San Francisco Chronicle: Pelosi's time

By Marc Sandalow

This is Nancy Pelosi's moment.

There is no way for the public to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Capitol this week, or whether enough votes will emerge to enact health care reform.

But if the House Speaker were Barry Bonds, this would be like a high fast ball over the plate. This is Pelosi's power zone.

Pelosi is not speaker because of her oratorical skills, liberal ideology, sweeping vision or even her magnificent district. She is speaker because of her mastery of the inside game.

To obtain the 216 House votes needed to pass a health care bill, Democrats must rein in liberals disappointed with its timidity, moderates worried about its costs, abortion foes concerned about public money, and freshmen who fear a 'yes' vote will bring a swift end to their tenure.

There is a reason that Pelosi was not on the Sunday talk shows last week. She is consumed by hand-to-hand legislative combat; the kind that those who rail against the ways of Washington snarl at, even as they demand the results that make it necessary.

Pelosi has contorted many of her own political leanings to get on the cusp of 216 votes. She abandoned the public option, voted in November for abortion restrictions she finds offensive, and is willing to include a future tax on high-priced health plans that her friends in organized labor find abhorrent. Still, many Americans have trouble seeing beyond Pelosi's well-coiffed appearance and her fiercely liberal and partisan instincts.

Pelosi grew up in Baltimore's Little Italy, where her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was a member of Congress and mayor. 'Big Tommy' was dapper, smooth and fearless - exactly the character many would expect to find if they could bust open the smoke-filled back rooms.

'My desk wants to know your position,' a persistent reporter once blurted after D'Alesandro repeatedly declined to answer a question.

Putting his ear to his own desk, the mayor responded: 'My desk tells your desk to go f- itself.'

Pelosi would never use such language, but her approach is similarly hard-headed. She replaced the Capitol's ashtrays with chocolates, but is most comfortable in the same back rooms. She talks of the 'cold-blooded, reptilian,' decisions she makes when distributing campaign dollars. As minority leader, she threatened to strip out-of-step members of their committee assignments, and as Speaker she muscled Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. - who has been in Congress since Pelosi was a teenager - from his chairmanship of the energy committee in order to move energy legislation.

The late Rep. John Murtha, Pelosi's close ally from Pennsylvania, once told me what he often told old-school Democrats worried about installing a West Coast liberal as their leader: 'Don't think she's from San Francisco. She's from Baltimore.'

It is not clear whether Pelosi will succeed this week. But this is her legacy. If she fails, buildings will still be named after her for being the nation's first female Speaker. But her reputation for legislative accomplishment hangs in the balance. If she succeeds, in addition to health care reform, America may finally gain an insight into why Pelosi was the first woman to shatter the marble ceiling.

Former Chronicle Washington Bureau Chief Marc Sandalow is the author of 'Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power.' He teaches politics and journalism at the University of California's Washington Center.