WASHINGTON — To conservatives, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a wide-eyed San Francisco liberal who as House speaker helped President Barack Obama pass the Affordable Care Act and famously told lawmakers they’d “have to pass” the bill “so that you can find out what’s in” it.
“Your typical voter in red meat America” sees Pelosi as “an inarticulate knee-jerk liberal, but she is “much, much more than that,” said Marc Sandalow, a former journalist with the University of California Washington Program and a Pelosi biographer.
To many Democrats, Pelosi is the first female House speaker, a mother of five and a grandmother of nine who waited until her youngest was in high school before she agreed to run for office for the first time, at age 46. The daughter of late Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Pelosi also is a dynamic fundraiser who helped her party win 40 seats in November to retake the House.
House members are expected to return Pelosi to the speakership when the 116th Congress convenes on Thursday. If so, the woman who was speaker from 2007-11 will take the gavel as political landmines litter the landscape.
To start, there’s the partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 21 after the Republican-controlled House and Senate failed to pass spending bills.
Democrats have proposed a legislative package that would fund closed departments — but not include money for President Donald Trump’s border wall, the signature promise of his 2016 campaign.
If the bills pass in the House, the Senate will vote on those measures only if Trump agrees to sign them, according to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called the Democrats’ package a “non-starter” on Tuesday.
“Her ideology is very progressive, very liberal, but she leads the party as a pragmatic moderate,” Sandalow said.
As speaker, Pelosi was able to keep the caucus together by reaching out to moderate Democrats, while keeping the faith of the party’s progressives who believed her when she told them that deals she cut were the best deals they could get, Sandalow told the Review-Journal.
Whether Pelosi can retain the trust of today’s Democrats is another question.
Pressure is likely to mount for the Democrat-controlled House to cut a deal with Republicans to end the partial government shutdown. Would Pelosi cut a deal that allows both Democrats and Republicans to claim some sort of victory?
“I think at some point she would cut a deal,” mused California GOP consultant Rob Stutzman. “The ultimate deal would be to bring back the DACA deal.” He was refering to a proposal to increase funding for border security while extending protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for the qualifying children of undocumented immigrants.
Pelosi also is familiar with the second land mine that awaits Democrats: impeachment fever.
She was a member of the House in 1998 when it impeached President Bill Clinton, though the Senate later acquitted him. At the time she argued Clinton’s actions were “cause for embarrassment but not impeachment.”
And when a rump of Democrats and constituents were clamoring to impeach President George W. Bush in 2006, Pelosi announced that impeaching him was “off the table.”
The Democratic takeover of the House means Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York will take the helm of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California will chair the House Intelligence Committee and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland will chair the House Oversight Committee. All three Democrats have promised thorough investigations into the Trump 2016 campaign.
For her part, Pelosi has urged members to wait for the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into interference in the 2016 election before they propose impeachment proceedings.
“If she follows the pattern she did under George W. Bush, impeachment will be at the bottom of her list of priorities,” Sandalow said. “If the president committed crimes, he would have to go,” he said, but otherwise Pelosi likely would counsel against investigations that would consume time and energy, and possibly result in a GOP vice president in the Oval Office.
In 2016, candidate Trump told MSNBC he “always had a good relationship” with Pelosi. She solicited donations from Trump in the 2000s. Then a Democrat, Trump donated $20,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, the year Democrats won back the majority — which led to Pelosi becoming speaker.
The Republican National Committee made hay about her Christmas destination when it sent reporters a Washington Free Beacon story on the Fairmont Orchid resort in Hawaii, where advertised room rates start at around $900 per night — in the middle of the partial government shutdown.
In contrast, Trump canceled a planned working vacation at his beloved Mar-a-Lago so that he could stay in Washington if negotiations resumed. Trump left the White House on Christmas evening to visit U.S. troops in Iraq.
“There wasn’t a single other congressional leader who was here,” Pelosi Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill told the Review-Journal. “I think it’s a false equivalence.”
“The president shut down the government,” Hammill added. “He was the one who would not take what a hundred senators agreed to,” in reference to a temporary spending resolution approved by a Senate voice vote.
Asked on CNN how her mother will fare in negotiations with Trump, Alexandra Pelosi, a documentary filmmaker, warned not to underestimate her.
“She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding,” she said. “That’s all you need to know about her.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.