By Wes Allison
Nancy Pelosi needed some votes. The 30 or so liberals packed into her conference room had them. Now if she could just persuade them to give the votes to her.
It was mid May, three months into the fight with President Bush over funding for the war in Iraq. Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House, had been juggling two main factions within her Democratic caucus: liberals who want Congress to use the power of the purse to end the war and moderates who fear over-reaching.
The president had vetoed the first funding bill Congress had sent him, so the House was about to vote on a second. But liberal Democrats were frustrated because it lacked a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Pelosi explained her predicament to the members, who ringed the long wooden table in her Capitol conference room and snacked on chocolates and California pistachios.
Yes, Pelosi told them, the bill was too weak. But it was all she could do right now. Pelosi speaks often about 'sequencing,' of the importance of taking one step at a time, and she reminded them of that. Plus, she said, what if I give you something in return?
Last fall, when it looked like the Republicans might lose Congress, they began warning that electing Democrats would cede control of the U.S. House to Nancy Pelosi, a wild-eyed San Francisco liberal bent on driving the nation off the Left Coast.
But halfway through her first year as speaker, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history has shown a propensity to govern from the center. Even her Republican adversaries acknowledge that through a combination of listening, cajoling and dealing, she has artfully held the disparate Democratic caucus together on major issues, particularly in opposing the war in Iraq.
Her role, as a result, is that of an overbooked dog-walker, tugging at nervous moderates, while reining in liberals eager to bolt ahead of the pack, and possibly into traffic.
It isn't always pretty, but she is moving the pack along.
'Nancy Pelosi is smart, she's a good strategist, and she understands that to govern you have to govern from the middle. I'm becoming a fan,' said Rep. Allen Boyd, a North Florida Democrat and leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, who had worried Pelosi might steer too far left.
'She does a lot of listening as to what our thoughts are, and explaining what her positions are, and that's one of the things I like about her - she's listening to a side opposite of what her normal constituency would be.'
Regardless of how distasteful he finds her political positions, Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, the third-ranking House Republican, said Pelosi deserves credit for keeping her side together.
'You have this very unnatural alliance within her caucus that creates a great deal of internal tension that she has managed quite well,' Putnam said.
It didn't start that way.
As speaker-designate, she backed an old friend and leader of the House antiwar movement, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., over Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for the job of majority leader.
Hoyer, who is less liberal, had been Pelosi's second-in-command for four years. He was also the clear favorite, and many thought backing Murtha was needlessly divisive. House Democrats chose Hoyer.
Later, she tangled with John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the energy committee, by ordaining a special panel to address global warming.
Dingell's committee should have jurisdiction, but Pelosi worried that the longtime defender of the auto industry would be too soft.
In March, when some members of the Appropriations Committee threatened to balk during the first showdown with Bush over the Democratic plan to bring the troops home next year, Pelosi summoned them for a chat.
'You are on this committee because I know I can count on you,' she said, according to a Pelosi loyalist who was there. 'And you don't have to be on this committee. So you know where I need you to be.'
Members say Pelosi, 67, has softened her style in the past couple of months, seeking to build consensus through retail politicking. Her father was the mayor of Baltimore, as was her brother, and she was raised in the art.
During a fireside chat at the Capitol with the children of reporters and members for Take Your Child to Work Day, Pelosi introduced Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and her daughter Rebecca, then noted that the congresswoman was Rebecca's Brownie troop leader.
'She has 230-some-odd members. How would she remember that?' Wasserman Schultz said. 'It's like she's all of our mom. ... You don't want to let her down.'
Ironically, most of the grumbling about Pelosi has come from liberals, old allies like fellow Californians Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, who think the speaker should be more aggressive on the war.
She is, after all, one of them, and for years they've stuck together on education, the environment and workers' rights.
But last month, they and 25 other liberals were about to break ranks in a dramatic way and sink the reworked version of the Iraq spending bill. Which is why they were packed into Pelosi's conference room the night before the vote listening to their leader suggest a deal:
If they didn't kill it, she would allow a vote on a measure by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to pull troops from Iraq in 180 days.
McGovern's bill would never pass, but liberals all year have wanted to take that vote to show the president they weren't afraid of his claims that opposing the war meant opposing the troops.
Pelosi warned them it must be 'a strong vote, and a strong repudiation of the president,' members and aides said.
'And if you have a strong vote on McGovern, you have to pass (the war bill), because we are not going to be responsible for denying funding to the troops.'
In the end, the McGovern bill got 171 votes. That's almost 50 votes shy of passage, but far more than even its backers had expected. And thanks to the votes from the liberals, the spending bill passed.
Days after her swearing-in in January, before the war debates began, the Democrats quickly met a half-dozen campaign pledges, passing bills to cut student loan rates, rescind tax breaks to oil companies and lift Bush's restrictions on funding embryonic stem cell research.
But most of these and other House bills have stalled in the Senate, and the president has pledged to veto many of them.
The big exception was the first minimum wage increase in nearly a decade, which Bush signed.
Taking heed of the bribery scandals and ethics troubles that helped cost the Republican Party its 12-year rule of Congress, Pelosi and the freshmen also pushed tough new ethics and lobbying rules.
However, the Democrats have failed in their pledge to excise hidden 'earmarks,' the billions of dollars in funding for legislators' pet projects. Nor have they kept another promise: returning bipartisanship to the House.
'There have been countless missed opportunities to change the tone and heal the institution,' Putnam said. 'And in almost every case, they have chosen a more partisan approach.'
Like the GOP before them, Democrats have limited amendments the minority can offer and sometimes bypassed committees to ensure the leadership's versions of key bills survive.
When Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, filed a bill to consolidate information about federal student aid, grants and scholarships on one Web page, Democrats told him they loved it -then tacked it onto their bill. During debate on the first war spending bill in March, Democrats said Republicans could offer an amendment, then reneged.
'They shouldn't have done that. I don't expect perfection here ... but everything else ought to have a significant amount of openness,' said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
'They're not at the point where you would condemn them, but they're at point where you have concern.'
Critics say the Democrats lost the battle over the war spending bill, because the version Bush finally signed last week is mum on leaving Iraq.
But it does set goals for the Iraqi government, which Bush had resisted. More importantly, Pelosi has brought the national debate on the war into the halls of Congress, where it had been largely absent for four years. 'Icebergs move slowly,' Wasserman Schultz said. 'But at least now there is a crack in the ice.'
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have promised to keep at it. The defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 is coming soon.
'She keeps using that word, sequencing,' said Rep. Jan Schakowsky. D-Ill. 'And the debate really has been transformed from 'stay the course, escalation,' to, 'When are we going to end this war?' Not if, but when.'
Some Democrats have warned Pelosi the war cannot be the House's only worry if they hope to prevail again in 2008, and Republicans hope that becomes problematic.
Most of the 30 freshmen Democrats who took Republican-held seats last fall are in swing districts, and their voters are more conservative than the party's elders who lead top committees and set the agenda.
While Pelosi has kept her team together on the war, Putnam says the Democratic unity will face more stress over issues like immigration reform, entitlement spending and taxes.
The speaker's true test will be how she governs then.
'Winning is a pretty sweet feeling,' Putnam said. 'And winning allows you to paper over significant differences. For a short period of time.'
By Wes Allison