By Marie Cocco
For a politician who is caricatured as a San Francisco liberal and who is the target of increasing Republican ire, Nancy Pelosi is preternaturally chipper.
Her eyes are animated, her ideas tumble forth. The House speaker clearly does not heed the warnings from the pundit chorus that says President Barack Obama has overloaded his agenda with too many big and contentious proposals, or that he risks failure in a Congress that likes to do things its own way, on its own timetable.
“It’s a completely different world since we last met here,” she told a gathering of journalists and bloggers over breakfast in her office this week. “We are very excited, I guess is the word, about the fact that we have a Democratic president who from the steps of this Capitol put forth an agenda for America that contained many of the issues that we have been fighting for over the years.”
“We have a full plate,” she acknowledged. “We have lots of ideas, we have established our priorities. It’s easier to do that with a Democratic president because we know what we pass will likely become law.”
Other than former President George W. Bush—who unified Democrats more than any president since perhaps John F. Kennedy—Pelosi is more responsible than anyone for the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006 and for the gains that widened her party’s majority in last year’s elections. Having spent more than two decades in Congress, about half of it under Republican control, she clearly does not believe that Obama—however popular, charming or well-meaning he might be—will win over Republicans who are his ideological opposites.
“What you have to know about these Republicans is they do not believe in what we are talking about here, about an economy where the prosperity is shared by many more Americans and not just the few,” Pelosi said. The lack of any Republican votes in the House for the recently passed economic stimulus bill wasn’t a failure of bipartisanship, in her view. It was the predictable result of a philosophical divide that Pelosi clearly has no intention of investing her own time in trying to bridge. “The fact is, they didn’t vote for it because they don’t believe in government making the investments in health care, education, energy and the rest,” she said. “They are agents of the status quo and some of them are very ideological about the role of government.”
These are fighting words, delivered in the matter-of-fact tone of a busy leader who won’t be diverted from the goal of delivering for her president on his key priorities of bolstering education, rewriting the nation’s energy policy and making progress toward universal health coverage. Two of these three—energy and health care—have great potential to split Democrats, even in the House. Representatives from energy-producing states are almost certain to balk at some of Obama’s plans for strict caps on emissions from power plants and other sources. Deficit “hawks” already squawk about the expense of some Obama programs—and health care is sure to be one of the most expensive. Meanwhile, a bloc of liberals would be inclined to support a single-payer health insurance program, perhaps by allowing those without insurance to buy into Medicare.
This is political ground that is treacherous in normal times, let alone in a moment of unprecedented economic turmoil that has the country reeling.
Nonetheless, Pelosi lays out a calendar of rapid-fire progress that envisions passing the controversial “cap-and-trade” program by the end of May. “Health care is a bigger ticket, but everybody’s ready,” she said. In the same breath, though, Pelosi indicated she thinks everybody is “ready” for the kind of preliminary steps—such as computerizing patient records—about which there is no ideological disagreement.
If anything nags at Pelosi, it isn’t gossip mongers who put her at odds with Obama (untrue, she says) or the challenge of holding together the disparate members of her own caucus. It is—well, it’s the Senate, where legislation that passed the House last year often went to die and where the stimulus package was altered in ways not much to her liking.
“I can only answer for the House of Representatives—I know that we can get this job done,” said this warrior, happier now that hers is the winning side.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group