Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Aug. 2, 2009
As tourists in flip-flops snapped photos of the sign above her Capitol office last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent 14-hour days mediating a sprawling health care bill among the warring factions of her 256 Democrats.
She swallowed pork chops on a stick to woo red-state Democrats for her majority, then faced an open rebellion among the Blue Dog conservatives she helped elect. No sooner were they appeased than liberals threatened to bolt. Pelosi achieved a tentative and unstable truce, missing President Obama's deadline of passing a health care bill out of the House by the August recess, but averting a meltdown.
Republicans, meanwhile, waged hourly attacks against the 10-year, $1 trillion plan she was crafting. The gilt-tongued president grew wonky, while polls showed public support for reform turning to opposition.
Outside the Capitol, Pelosi's popularity hovers in the basement. But by all accounts, her standing with her colleagues has risen, and if there is any torture going on in her chambers it seems mainly applied to her.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelsoi (D-CA) answers reporters' questions during a press conference at the U.S. Captiol July 31, 2009 in Washington, DC. Pelosi and House Democratic leaders said they are sending members home with written guidance on health care reform legislation, which they hope to pass after their summer recess. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
"Nancy rose to a new level of professionalism in bringing people together to work out their differences on the bill," said Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., one of the seven Blue Dogs in the closed-door meeting.
Oakland Democrat Barbara Lee, the Congressional Black Caucus chair who joined the liberal revolt, had nothing but praise for the Speaker. "She's a very astute politician, she's a fine negotiator," Lee said. "We're counting on her. She cares about this country. She cares about this health care reform as one of the biggest issues of our time. I know her passion. I know her toughness. Our goal is to make sure she's strengthened."
'Tough, tough job'
Former Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who in 2003 conducted an unprecedented all-nighter of arm-twisting to pass the Medicare prescription drug benefit, said in sympathy. "It's a tough, tough job."
On Friday, Pelosi announced a monthlong attack during Congress' August recess, arming her members with pocket-size, "What's in it for you" talking points and taking aim at insurance companies, accusing them of a "carpet-bombing, slash-and-burn, shock and awe" effort to defeat the "public option" plan she and Obama want.
"Let me assure you," she said. "There will be a health care reform bill passed."
Health care reform is the imperative of the Democratic Party. Its leaders will rise or fall with its fortunes. Nothing is more difficult than overhauling a $2.6 trillion health care system, where every alteration threatens to divest a vested interest and voters fear changes that can affect their lives.
"It's just bringing everybody to the table," Pelosi said of her mediations. "I don't know how many times I've been in meetings where I say, 'It's up to you. You're not leaving until this is resolved.' They are all decisions, you can talk about them forever, you can put it off, but the fact is ... we are going to be positioned" for the fall.
Calling the intense, high-stakes health care battle a "joy," Pelosi said, "For us, it's our life's work."
The test of her leadership lies ahead. The House bill, although far from finished, will form the battlefield during the August recess.
GOP on offensive
Two months ago, Republicans "were resigned to just an utter defeat," said a former top GOP aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The polls were sky high for Obama and Democrats," he said, and attacking on health care "just seemed like a fool's errand."
But with the realization that Democrats will need 60 votes to pass health care in the Senate, and the emergence of concrete plans, "something clicked," he said. "We really feel like we're on offense again."
Pelosi said she will follow the template she used to defeat former President George W. Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security. She sees an opening in the confusion that polls now reflect; although majorities now oppose reform in general, they support the specifics.
Misinformation is rampant. One proposal to compensate Medicare doctors for advice on end-of-life care has been twisted in the public imagination to euthanasia of the elderly. People who are on government programs such as Medicare are railing against a "government takeover" of their care; Republicans have been especially effective charging that Democrats would insert bureaucrats between patients and their doctors to ration care, when most insurers currently do just that.
Pelosi said she intends to change those perceptions this month. "The president of the United States is our drum major," she said. "We will be the drumbeat."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead