It was after the Democrats' loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, when health care seemed dead and Democrats were in a deep funk, that Nancy Pelosi made me a believer. "You can always find a way," she told the skeptical columnists and pundits gathered in her office. If the election results close one door to reforming the health-care system, you go to the gate; if the gate's locked, you climb over the fence; if it's too high, you pole-vault in; and if that doesn't work, you parachute in.
Pelosi is that rare public official in Washington who, when she says she'll get something done you can take it to the bank, or in the case of health care, to the White House. She stood her ground and by all accounts helped stiffen the spines of others, notably President Obama, who was getting conflicting advice about whether to press ahead with comprehensive reform or settle for a scaled-back bill that Pelosi privately derided with the lyrics of the children's song "Eensy Weensy Spider."
Pelosi had many of the same pundits back for a return visit Tuesday afternoon. Asked to describe her lowest point in the yearlong fight for health-care reform, Pelosi fixed her eyes on her questioners and said there were no low points. "We saw everything as an opportunity," she declared. "It never occurred to me that it wouldn't pass."
Midway through the hour-plus session, an aide passed her a note with the results of a new USA Today/Gallup poll. She read the numbers aloud: More Americans say they are "enthusiastic" or "pleased" by the passage of health-insurance reform than say they are "disappointed" or "angry"—50 percent compared with 42 percent.
Asked for her reaction to the way she has been vilified by opponents of the bill, she cited the signs that say "Stop Madam Speaker" and with a coy smile suggested that protesters may have something other than respect in mind by using her honorary title. Pressed to explicitly say whether she thought the attacks on her are motivated by sexism, she declined, but added, "I couldn't care less about what they say…What's lower than a nano? That's the interest that I have." She considers the opposition she arouses from critics to be a badge of honor, something she can capitalize on for fundraising purposes even as the Republicans raise money by demonizing her. (The Republican National Committee had a message saying "It's time to fire Nancy Pelosi" in its supporters' inboxes less than an hour after health-care reform passed Sunday night.)
She's being called the most powerful speaker in a hundred years, but her success wasn't always assured. She lost her first vote after being elected speaker in 2006 when she backed one of Congress's old bulls, Rep. John Murtha, for majority leader. Murtha had endorsed her for speaker, and his support gave her credibility in what is still a boys' club on Capitol Hill. Murtha lost to Rep. Steny Hoyer, who holds the position today, and the buzz around town was that Pelosi had been weakened, perhaps permanently.
Instead, she's won every controversial vote since. In just this Congress, the house has passed health-care reform twice, climate change legislation, and financial reform, all what Pelosi calls "heavy lifts." Asked what it is about her leadership that has been so successful, she talked about "the psychology of consensus," and how it is a feature of a woman-led House. She works the Democratic caucus like a kaleidoscope, turning the dial this way or that, so different members fall into place. "I don't ever use the word 'deal,' " she told reporters.
Pelosi is "San Francisco on the outside and Baltimore on the inside," says one of her biggest fans in the House, Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, referring to her childhood as the daughter of Baltimore mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. Looking at her signature Armani suits and spike heels, members forget at their peril that she cut her teeth in Democratic-machine politics. And nowhere is her steeliness more apparent than in how she handled the abortion politics that threatened more than once to derail the health-care bill.
A strong advocate of reproductive rights, she points out that she had five children in six years, and that she is a practicing Catholic. When advocates of abortion rights were castigating Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak for his restrictive amendment on abortion, Pelosi was negotiating with him and other Democratic opponents of abortion rights. The bill that passed on Sunday was followed by an executive order issued by President Obama that reinforced the federal ban on using taxpayer money to fund abortions. Stupak's vote, together with those of other Catholic Democrats, was critical, and Pelosi took their concerns seriously. "They were not using abortion to take [the bill] down," she said.
Her pragmatic yet principled leadership is winning her much deserved kudos in Washington, but how it will play out in the country when the voters render their judgment on Congress is an open question. "I'm not yielding one grain of sand," she said when asked about the November election. "We're ready, and that's the difference between now and '94." And then there's the health-care bill that Pelosi, as much as the president, made a reality.