WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already made the history books, and now she has 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." 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-Mariposa. "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 they would support the legislation, having been persuaded it won't permit federal funding of abortions.
In a similarly pragmatic vein, Pelosi disappointed her own liberal Democratic base when she declared 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.