San Francisco Chronicle: Pelosi Proud of Dems' Work in First 100 Days

March 29, 2007
By Edward Epstein

Nancy Pelosi took an early survey of her first 100 days as speaker of the House of Representatives and called reporters to the Capitol Wednesday to proclaim she had compiled a 'remarkable record of which I'm enormously proud.'

Outside experts said her boast was only somewhat hyperbolic. Even Republicans conceded that Pelosi, whom they have derided as an out-of-touch San Francisco liberal, has done a good job of keeping the 233 House Democrats together through some tough votes -- although few of their bills have made it through the Senate and onto President Bush's desk.

'Overall, I'd give her high marks,' said Julian Zelizer, a scholar of Congress at Boston University. 'I think she has surprised the Republicans. And the more she succeeds, the more Democrats will be willing to follow her, and the more she succeeds, she may be able to attract moderate Republicans. Each success makes her only stronger.'

After leading Democrats to victory in November's election, Pelosi took office Jan. 3. Her 100th day as the first female speaker in the history of Congress won't come until mid-April. But the House will be on its spring recess then, so Pelosi gathered her top deputies Wednesday and called a news conference to praise the work of her leadership team.

'In the last election, the American people voted for change,' Pelosi said, standing in front of an array of American flags and a banner emblazoned with her campaign slogan, 'A New Direction.'

'Democrats have brought the winds of change to the Capitol,' she added.

Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid are engaged in a political battle with Bush over ways to limit the Iraq war. Shortly after she touted -her accomplishments, reporters asked repeated questions about the fate of the Democratic troop withdrawal plan included in the $124 billion emergency war spending bill that Bush has threatened to veto.

'You're the president, we're the Congress, let's work together for the American people. Take a deep breath, Mr. President,' Pelosi said.

Pelosi's speakership got off to a rocky start even before she took office. After the election, she backed her longtime friend, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., in a campaign to unseat the Democrats' new majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Hoyer easily bested Murtha even after Pelosi lobbied strenuously for her friend.

But since her election as speaker, in a party-line vote Jan. 4, Pelosi has carefully cultivated the image of change. In a first, after she spoke to the House that day, she invited the children of the members in the chamber to join her on the speaker's dais as she pounded the speaker's gavel, producing a unique image for the evening news and nation's newspapers.

In response to scandals that had dogged the Republican-led 109th Congress, the House quickly adopted rules that limited lobbyists' ability to entertain members or their staffs and reinstated 'pay-go' rules for the federal budget requiring that any new spending be offset by spending cuts or increased taxes.

Then Pelosi's fellow Democrats fulfilled her pledge to pass the 'Six for '06' agenda of carefully poll-tested legislation within 100 legislative hours. The House voted to raise the federal minimum wage, allow federally funded embryonic stem cell research, implement recommendations of the 9/11 commission, cut oil and gas tax breaks, allow Medicare to negotiate drug price discounts and cut student loan rates.

The bills passed, with an average of 62 Republicans joining the Democrats, well within 100 legislative hours, although Republicans pointed out that the official clock seemed to stop and start selectively -- and that they weren't allowed to offer amendments despite Pelosi's pledge to treat the minority generously.

Since the initial flurry, the focus has been on two pieces of legislation related to the Iraq war. Both required intense lobbying within the diverse Democratic caucus, which ranges from the 43 moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs on the right to the 72 members of the Progressive Caucus on the left.

First was a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's plan to send more than 21,500 additional U.S. combat troops to Iraq. It passed the House 246-182 on Feb. 16 with 17 Republicans joining the Democrats.

The negotiating and cajoling over that bill were nothing compared to the effort required last week to pass a $124 billion emergency war spending bill that came with a deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq. Billions of dollars in domestic spending were added to lure votes, and the wording about deadlines and troop conditions were almost endlessly negotiated.

The measure passed 218-212, only two Republicans voting yes. Fourteen Democrats, from the right and left, voted no. The Senate is poised today to pass a similar measure.

To UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, Pelosi's record is mixed.

'The first thing you look for is a leader's ability to lead your caucus,' he said. Pointing to her quixotic support for Murtha, he said, 'I think she started out shaky there but ended on a strong note.'

The second dimension of effective leadership, Cain said, is producing results. 'In the end, legislators have to produce things. Her first 100 days started out with promise and ended in stalemate,' he said.

Here, Pelosi ran up against the unusual arithmetic of the Senate, which turned narrowly Democratic after November's election. Under Senate rules, almost nothing can pass without 60 votes, meaning bipartisan accord is necessary to prevent gridlock.

Pelosi's 'Six for '06' measures either haven't come to the Senate floor or are awaiting action by House-Senate conference committees.

But House Democrats say they and their Senate counterparts also have played a major role in oversight of the Bush administration.

In the House alone, more than 100 hearings have been held this year on the conduct of the war in Iraq and reconstruction.

And on matters such as reports of patient neglect at WalterReedArmyMedicalCenter, FBI abuse of national security letters and the firing of U.S. attorneys, Congress has moved quickly to confront the Bush administration.

Pelosi's Republican House rivals, still trying to adjust to life in the minority after 12 years in charge, give her grudging praise.

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who chairs the House Republican Conference, said of Pelosi and her team, 'I think they've done a pretty good job of keeping their troops in line.'

But he said Pelosi's legislative agenda has endangered many of the 42 Democratic House freshmen who were elected from competitive districts. 'This comes at a great political cost to their members who ran as conservatives. She is making them walk the plank,' Putnam said.

But those conservative Democrats say Pelosi has run the caucus from the middle, not from the liberal flank, and has sought out their input.

An example, said Blue Dog leader Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., is legislation for the $2.9 trillion federal budget scheduled today for a House vote. Democratic leaders gave the Blue Dogs a lead role in writing the House budget.

'We're in the middle. We believe the American people are in the middle. We believe this budget is an opportunity to lead from the middle,' Ross said. 'We believe this new budget is another example of the leadership leading from the middle.'