WASHINGTON – Sworn in just over two weeks ago as the first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi wasted no time showing who’s boss.
The California Democrat rammed six major bills through the House at breakneck speed, stomped out smoking privileges near the House floor, partially sidelined a powerful Democratic committee chairman and decided she liked traditionally Republican office space so much she claimed it for herself.
By Democrats’ timekeeping, she did it all in far under the 100 legislative hours she had allotted.
“We did what we promised the American people we would,” Pelosi declared on Friday, pledging it was “just the beginning.”
Pelosi’s initial agenda, completed Thursday, included measures with wide popular support: increasing the minimum wage, broadening stem cell research, allowing government bargaining on Medicare drug prices, cutting student loan costs, putting in place terrorism-fighting recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission and rolling back energy company tax breaks.
Each bill passed with bipartisan majorities and Pelosi triumphantly gaveled down the votes, at one point banging the gavel so enthusiastically that it left a small dent in the podium.
Now Democrats will have to move on to thornier topics such as reconciling their conflicting views of President Bush’s Iraq troop escalation plan, overhauling immigration laws and fixing the alternative minimum tax. That will be the true test of Pelosi’s leadership, congressional observers said.
More acts to go
“It’s sort of like a meal in which you eat your dessert first and then get the broccoli for the main course,” said Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker. “It’s a great debut, but it’s the overture and there are three or four acts to go.”
Still, in the view of many Democrats, Pelosi’s opening performance bodes well. She seemed to recover from postelection stumbles such as backing the losing candidate in the contest for House majority leader.
She also is getting a honeymoon from the public. Pelosi is held in higher regard than the president or her colleagues in the Congress. An AP-AOL News poll taken Jan. 16-18 put her approval rating at 51 percent – much higher than that of Congress (34 percent) or Bush (36 percent).
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a close ally, called Pelosi’s performance “spectacular.”
“What the Democrats in the caucus are telling me is that this is the best three weeks of their life,” he crowed.
Even moderates who are not always aligned with the liberal Pelosi were not complaining.
“I’ve had no problem choking down anything she’s done to date,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats. “I think she’s done very well in the good old boy halls of Congress. She’s been more collegial than some members thought she might be.”
Pelosi, who is in her 10th House term, moved quickly to defuse the first potential controversy to beset her speakership: questions over whether the minimum wage bill gave preferential treatment to a company in her district. She instructed the bill’s authors to make sure it did not.
Where there’s smoking
She has been at the forefront of her party’s opposition to Bush’s proposed troop increase, carefully emphasizing that Democrats will not support any attempt to cut off money for soldiers already in Iraq.
And she has played tough with Republicans and Democrats alike.
Pelosi’s move to end smoking in the House Speaker’s Lobby came even though House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a heavy smoker. She angered Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House’s longest-serving member, by creating a special committee to look at global warming, which is under Dingell’s committee’s jurisdiction.
“I have yet to have it explained to me what good it is,” grumbled Dingell, D-Mich., an auto industry ally who has clashed with Pelosi.
Newly demoted Republicans have been able to do little but watch unhappily from the sidelines, echoing the complaint often made by Democrats during their 12 years in the minority: that they are being shut out of the legislative process.
Yet several GOP lawmakers said it hardly is surprising that Pelosi is flexing her muscles now that she is leading the Democrats’ return to power.
“Speaker Pelosi worked a long time to earn this opportunity to be elected speaker, and she is totally enjoying her first month on the job,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y.
“It’s not that she’s the first woman, it’s her style,” he added. “She’s a risk taker.”