As leader of the House Democrats, Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been credited with imposing new discipline and fostering unity among a group of lawmakers often derided as an unruly herd.
But that new Democratic solidarity -- and Pelosi’s ability to maintain it -- will be tested in the coming months as she formally becomes the first woman and first Californian to serve as speaker of the House and sets out to remake Congress.
And as the face of the Democratic Party for the next two years, she will have to avoid missteps that could be used by Republicans to make her a lightning rod for criticism. How she manages all that will be crucial for Democrats if they want to capture the White House in 2008.
Pelosi expressed confidence Wednesday that she and her party are up to the challenge.
“The American people, with their votes yesterday, placed their trust in the Democrats,” Pelosi said at a news conference. “We will honor that trust. We will not disappoint.”
The San Francisco Democrat appears to have absorbed some of the lessons learned by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said John C. Fortier who studies Congress and the presidency at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Gingrich led a new Republican majority into the House in 1994 only to fall prey to legislative overreach and ethics lapses, giving Democrats something to run against.
“There is only so much you can do to govern from the House,” said Fortier, noting that Pelosi’s “Six in ’06" agenda -- which includes such goals as a hike in the minimum wage and cuts in student loan interest rates -- is less ambitious than was Gingrich’s “contract with America.”
“Gingrich tried sometimes to govern as if the House were parliament and there was no president there,” he said. “If Pelosi went down that road, it would be a mistake.”
In contrast to Gingrich’s confrontational style, Pelosi on Wednesday appeared to be taking pains to appear calm and bipartisan -- smiling between sentences, speaking in measured tones and disavowing her previous harsh criticism of the president as campaign rhetoric. She even wore muted colors -- mauve on election day, dove gray Wednesday.
“The campaign is over,” Pelosi said. “Democrats are ready to lead. We’re prepared to govern. But that means in a bipartisan way.”
In addition to being less abrasive than Gingrich, Pelosi is also less ideological, said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.
“It’s instructive that the Republicans failed to demonize Nancy Pelosi during the campaign,” Marshall said. “Nancy Pelosi is not some kind of ideologue. She is a shrewd professional.”
Still, the difficulties for her that lie ahead were already evident as Democrats began their internal campaign for party leadership positions, a competition that could again cause deep scars as it has in the past.
The most contentious rivalry appears to be for the party’s No. 2 position, pitting Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a centrist who voted to go to war in Iraq, against Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a former Marine and hawkish Democrat who voted for the war but who became a hero to the party’s liberal wing a year ago when he announced his support for withdrawal.
The fight between Hoyer and Murtha threatens to exacerbate tensions between Democrats who voted for the war and those who opposed it. Pelosi has scheduled the party leadership election for Nov. 16, just three days after members return to Washington, in part to limit any possible damage from the internal politicking.
After that, Pelosi needs to navigate the complicated shoals of naming chairmen and members to committees, a process in which egos, seniority and payback often matter more than experience.
In particular, she must decide whether to follow through on her pledge to force fellow Californian Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) to step down as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in part because of criticism that she has been too accommodating to the Republican administration.
That would give the chairmanship to Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, which could help improve Pelosi’s relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, angry over perceived slights in the past. However, Hastings, a former federal judge, was impeached by the Senate in 1988 on charges related to a bribery case. Although he successfully ran for election to the House four years later, many Democrats feel his past makes him an inappropriate choice to lead such a high-profile and sensitive committee.
“She’s got some tough decisions to make,” Marshall said. “She is going to bask in the aura of being the first woman speaker in American history and let those races play out, but making sure that the conflict doesn’t get out of hand.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, will be to find a governing strategy that will keep liberal and conservative Democrats voting together without drawing a veto from a Republican president.
Democrats in the House are expected to hold a comfortable majority of about 30 votes, but their Senate colleagues will at best have just a one-vote margin.
That means that if House Democrats want their bills to pass the Senate, they will have to gain the support of all 51 Senate Democrats and Independents, some of whom are conservative.
And of course, to become law, any bill must be signed by President Bush, who has not shown much inclination to cooperate with the opposing party.
For his part, Bush signaled Wednesday that he would give cooperation with Pelosi a try, and said he’d invited her to the White House this week.
“What’s changed today is the election is over, and the Democrats won,” Bush told reporters.
And, he said, “I told Congresswoman Pelosi that I look forward to working with her and her colleagues to find common ground in the next two years.”