By Marc Sandalow
There is nobody Republicans blame more for their woes than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It is Pelosi who loaded the stimulus bill with pork. It is Pelosi who shuts Republicans out of the legislative process, ramrods her liberal ideology through the House and imposes San Francisco values on the nation.
Even if the charges aren't true -- and some of them are demonstrably false -- Republicans can't be blamed for feeling that Pelosi is responsible for much of what ails them.
Four years ago, she set out in motion a plan to make Republicans a minority. At a time when others were talking about Republicans building a permanent majority, she sought control of the House. She wanted her party to control the Senate. She wanted a Democrat in the White House.
And now she has it all.
Her 77-seat majority in the House is the biggest either party has enjoyed in a generation. Her kinship with President Barack Obama places her in the center of nearly every major policy decision. Her clutch on fellow House members gives her wide latitude to impose her will on the chamber.
So what does Pelosi want?
Conservatives fear an explosion of big government spending, the rekindling of programs extinguished since the Reagan years. Liberals hope for a burst of progressive legislation to satisfy pent-up demand, mixed with a touch of retribution for what they feel were the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency.
Both sides are off the mark, according to those who know Pelosi best.
To be sure, her top priorities are goals that were central to the 2008 Democratic campaign: battling global warming, expanding health coverage and ending the war in Iraq. And Democratic control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has put all three within reach.
Yet the stimulus battle of the past few weeks illuminated the delicate path Pelosi walks: Push too hard and she provokes defiance from Senate Republicans, and places conservative House Democrats at political risk. Push too softly and she angers the left while squandering what may be a once-in-lifetime opportunity.
If seven years in leadership have revealed anything about Pelosi, it is that she is a calculating tactician who works hard at achieving that balance. She is an unabashed liberal who has nonetheless led from the center.
Left unchecked, Pelosi would press for universal health care, a Pentagon budget conditioned on a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, strict limits on fossil fuel emissions, an infusion of federal money to spur environmentally friendly technology and jobs, and a significant investment in public education, according to colleagues and aides.
“She obviously wants to push through a good, strong, bold agenda,” said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, tapped by Pelosi two years ago to run the House Democrats' committee on re-election. “But she's also a pragmatist in terms of what gets through. She's not interested in tilting at windmills.”
In other words, Pelosi may need to temper her most liberal impulses if she is to maintain the near-unity Democrats displayed during the stimulus fight.
Pelosi has already enjoyed some heady victories since Obama's inauguration. In a three-week span, Pelosi celebrated passage of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill to expand health insurance for poor children, the Ledbetter Act to expand women's right to sue over wage disparities, and a stimulus package aimed at pumping nearly $800 billion into the economy.
This past week she visited with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and was received by Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican.
At the same time, she has confronted limits to her influence. Spending in the House's stimulus bill was dramatically scaled back, and tax cuts for the upper middle class raised, in order to satisfy Republicans in the Senate.
“This is the legislative process. We act. They act. We reconcile. And in order to get their votes, they had to make certain changes in the legislation,” Pelosi explained to Chris Matthews on MSNBC's “Hardball” last week.
Few speakers in history have had such a grip on the institution as Pelosi. Sam Rayburn's glower was said to make collars wilt. Tip O'Neill knew half the members on a drinking basis. Newt Gingrich combined vision and money-raising skills that brought his party in from the wilderness.
Pelosi has combined fear, friendship and fundraising into a potent mix that has Democrats as united as they've ever been during the party's 200-year history.
It is not her Left Coast ideology that propelled Pelosi to the top, though it didn't hurt that California's 34-member Democratic delegation -- by far the nation's largest -- is firmly behind her.
It is Pelosi's comfort with the inside game -- her father represented Baltimore in the House when she was born, and she kept copies of the Congressional Record beneath her bed -- that has allowed her to preside over an institution containing 435 oversized egos.
She has raised more money than almost anyone in history and distributes it with what she calls a “cold-blooded, reptilian” calculation of need. When members don't vote the way she wants, she has threatened to remove perks. When Democrats embarrass the party (as when former Rep. William Jefferson was caught with $90,000 of bribe money in his freezer), she has stripped them of committee assignments. When they oppose her positions (as when Michigan Rep. John Dingell tried to block new restrictions on fuel admissions), she goes around them.
Her iron fist has drawn howls from Republicans who regard her as an autocrat.
When the 1,079-page stimulus bill came before the House on Feb. 13, many were outraged that Pelosi did not release the final text until nearly 12:30 a.m. on the morning of the vote.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio waved a copy of the bulky document before his colleagues on the House floor and complained that not a single one of them had time to read it, then slammed it down to the floor.
“We weren't allowed in the room. We weren't allowed to participate at all. And all the talk about bipartisanship that we have heard over the last several months went down the drain,” Boehner said.
Pelosi dismisses such complaints as “inside process talk,” and her aides note that she did allow a Republican alternative to be offered on the floor, even if it didn't attract any Democratic votes.
Republicans can be expected to continue to target Pelosi, particularly when faced with the alternative of going after the popular president.
“I wish I had a nickel, or at least a good bottle of cabernet, for each time they used her name in an ad,” said California Rep. Mike Thompson, a member the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
Pelosi, who embarked on her first campaign for elected office 22 years ago this month with the slogan “A voice that will be heard,” shows no sign that the attacks bother her.
“I'm in the arena. I love it,” she said on “Hardball.” “You know, if I were not effective, they would not be coming after me.”