WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already made the history books, and now she's written a new chapter in wielding power.
Whatever its merits or long-term consequences, the $940 billion health care bill the House of Representatives passed Sunday night is a Pelosiologist's treasure trove. The San Francisco Democrat, a grandmother who turns 70 on Friday, has flexed all her muscles, and developed some new ones, in rallying a narrow Democratic majority against unanimous Republican opposition.
"This is what she does," Pelosi's biographer, Marc Sandalow, said Sunday. "She's not speaker because she's a great orator, or because of her vision. She's speaker because she's good at the inside game."
This means counting votes and keeping her caucus intact. It means knowing what individual members need and what their congressional districts look like. Sometimes, it can mean being cold-blooded. Sandalow, for one, found that Pelosi wouldn't talk to him for the unauthorized biography, titled "Madam Speaker."
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Relentlessness matters, particularly on an excruciatingly tough vote like the health care package. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee on Sunday likened Pelosi to "a drone, zeroing in" on undecided members when they show up on the House floor.
"As much as I dislike the direction she's been taking the country, she's been effective," acknowledged Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif. "She's been able to get the votes."
Pelosi, for instance, spent hours hearing out House Democrats whose anti-abortion views diverge from her own strong support of abortion rights. Finally, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and a crucial handful of other Democrats who oppose abortion said Sunday afternoon that they'd support the legislation, having been persuaded that it won't permit federal funding of abortions.
In a similarly pragmatic vein, Pelosi disappointed her own liberal Democratic base when she declared that a government-run insurance program, or public option, wouldn't be part of the health care bill. It was all a matter of counting votes.
"We wanted it," Pelosi told reporters last week, "but it isn't in there because (the Senate doesn't) have the votes to have it in there."
Pelosi learned this inside game early, as the daughter of longtime Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. Even before she was first elected to the House in 1987, she grasped power levers as the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party and finance chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, her touch isn't always sure. Pelosi suffered an embarrassing defeat in one of her first steps as House speaker-elect in November 2006, when she publicly backed the late Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania for the job of House majority leader. House Democrats emphatically rejected Pelosi's choice by a 149-86 margin, instead picking Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Pelosi's leadership hasn't improved the public reputation of Congress; if anything, it's gotten worse. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that 80 percent of Americans surveyed disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
Sometimes, she may overreach. Pelosi's declaration that she might use a clever but controversial "deeming" or "self-executing" provision to secure a fingerprint-free approval of an unpopular Senate health care bill provided Republicans an opening for a week's worth of rhetorical attacks.
On Saturday, House Democratic leaders said they wouldn't use the controversial measure. It might have been a retreat, or perhaps a sign the Democrats already had locked in the votes they needed, but the episode demonstrated anew what opponents and supporters alike call Pelosi's indomitable persistence.
"We will go through the gate," Pelosi told reporters at her regular weekly news conference Jan. 28. "If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we will parachute in. But we will get health care reform passed for the American people."
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