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Wall Street Journal: Willing to Buck Traditions, Pelosi Rules the House

By SARAH LUECK

WASHINGTON -- In late March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was about to lose a vote on one of her pet projects: an ethics panel to monitor lawmakers' behavior. Despite her entreaties, Rep. Bob Filner, a fellow California Democrat, refused to change his mind, according to people who were there.   

Ms. Pelosi won anyway, by a single vote. Afterwards, she returned to the House cloak room and confronted Mr. Filner, according to a person who was there. 'You lost in two ways,' she said. 'We won, and we did it without you.'

Many House speakers have employed strong-arm tactics, but Ms. Pelosi's willingness to also buck traditions of the House has some colleagues saying she's one of the strongest speakers in recent history. That night, Ms. Pelosi was trying to force a major cultural change that bothered many members: allowing outsiders to watch over ethics issues.

Since becoming the first woman to lead the House, Ms. Pelosi has overridden powerful committee chairmen, changed the rules on how the House does business, and on one occasion, put off some of her party's priorities to cut a deal with Republicans on an economic-stimulus package.

Ms. Pelosi came to power promising to restore open debate in Congress -- after years of sometimes heavy-handed rule by Republicans who often squelched Democrats' attempts to influence legislation. But this week, she herself is bypassing regular legislative order as she pushes a bill that provides emergency funding for the Iraq war and some of the Democrats' domestic priorities. There will be none of the usual amendments or votes in committee.

Ms. Pelosi, asked at a press conference this week about Republican outrage over her departure from regular legislative order, said, 'That's a nonissue and kind of disingenuous of the Republicans to say such a thing.'

Ms. Pelosi hasn't been able to use her forceful style to cut off funding for the Iraq war, a priority of many Democrats, or to stem the slide in the public's view of Congress, now less popular than President Bush. She has to quell an uprising by fiscally conservative Democrats who threaten to bring down the Iraq funding bill over new spending on veterans' education benefits.

Ms. Pelosi, 68, has been -- in her own words -- a 'magnificent disruptor.' It's a concept drawn in part from the writings of business guru Clayton Christensen and also from the entrepreneurial, shake-it-up culture of Silicon Valley, near her San Francisco district.

Her influence stretches beyond Congress and into the increasingly divisive fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. She hasn't endorsed either candidate. But she stoked controversy by saying that the superdelegates -- party figures, including herself, who get to vote late in the process -- shouldn't overturn the will of delegates allocated through primaries and caucuses. Right now, following that principle would mean a likely victory for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Asked if her fondness for disruptive political figures means she prefers Sen. Obama over his rival for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Ms. Pelosi said: 'Not at all. I think there's plenty of freshness in the thinking of both of them.' Then she added: 'Some might say he's advocating what I've been advocating for a long time.'

When she took over as speaker, changes in the Capitol were swift. She banned smoking in the speaker's lobby, an area where lawmakers talk and read between votes. Soon after, she embarked on an effort to 'green' the Capitol. On the House side of the complex, cafeterias use biodegradable utensils and diners sort their trash into multiple recycling bins. Ms. Pelosi set up a facility in a House building -- the first on the House side of the Capitol complex -- where nursing mothers can pump breast milk.

Seizing Energy Policy

She quickly seized control of a major political issue for Democrats: energy policy. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, is the longest-serving member of the House and an ally of Detroit's auto makers. He backed a go-slow approach on fuel-economy standards for cars. Ms. Pelosi took the unusual step of forming a new committee to examine energy issues -- a departure from past eras when chairmen were sometimes stronger than the speaker. Mr. Dingell was furious. In comments to the press, he called the select committee an 'embarrassment' and the 'Fish Feather' panel, meaning it was as useful as a fish with feathers.

Ms. Pelosi assured Mr. Dingell the new panel wouldn't have legislative authority. Still, her pressure tactic helped weaken opposition to the fuel standards, which passed. 'We had to, shall we say, acknowledge the wishes of the caucus,' Ms. Pelosi says.

Mr. Dingell, in an interview, says the battle is 'old news,' adding he thinks Ms. Pelosi has done 'overall, very well indeed.'

Early this year, Ms. Pelosi returned from a Hawaii vacation determined to focus on the economy and rack up legislative accomplishments. She launched a series of meetings with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. In an evening meeting in late January, Ms. Pelosi agreed to drop spending items Democrats wanted, such as extending jobless benefits and funding for food stamps. In return, Republicans agreed to allow millions of people who didn't pay income taxes to receive rebate checks.

A key person had not signed off: Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the body that ordinarily writes tax bills. For two hours that night, he and Ms. Pelosi met in her office. Mr. Rangel was upset about the dropped items and that his committee was being bypassed, say people familiar with the matter

Echoed Dissatisfaction

The next day, on a conference call with other Democrats on the Ways and Means panel, some of Mr. Rangel's colleagues echoed his dissatisfaction and wondered if changes might still be made.

Then Ms. Pelosi got on the call. She told them she had gotten the best deal she could in light of what she called Republican stonewalling. She promised to revive unemployment insurance and other priorities later in the year. Democrats agreed to support the bill in the interest of urgency and party unity.

Mr. Rangel said in an interview that Ms. Pelosi has filled a vacuum in leadership that he says has been left by the White House and the Senate -- especially on economic matters affecting the middle class. The jobless benefits he wanted will be part of the war-funding bill if Ms. Pelosi has her way.

Ethics issues were one key to the Democrats' 2006 election win. To rebuild confidence in Congress, Ms. Pelosi argued, voters had to know that lawmakers weren't the only ones minding the store.

But many lawmakers in both parties balked at the idea of nonelected people examining ethics allegations. A task force of lawmakers set up by Ms. Pelosi backed the idea and also called for ethics investigations, once they reached a certain stage, to be made public -- a shift from the confidential inquiries of the past.

In March, Ms. Pelosi decided the time had come. Although some of her aides weren't certain they had enough support, she contended that, once the measure was put to a public vote, a sufficient number of lawmakers would feel they had to sign off.

Ms. Pelosi herself tracked down Rep. Bart Stupak in the lobby adjacent to the House floor, Mr. Stupak recalled in an interview. She questioned the Michigan Democrat about his vote against the panel. Mr. Stupak said he had made a mistake, and changed his vote.

When the gavel went down, Ms. Pelosi's side had won the procedural vote, 207 to 206, despite her inability to sway Mr. Filner. On final passage, the measure breezed through, as lawmakers flocked to support it.

Mr. Filner, in an interview, says he votes based on his conscience and the views of his district. 'Pressure is not going to change me because that's when you get into trouble,' he says.