Healthcare victory could bolster Pelosi


In the tense hours Sunday leading up to the House vote on a historic healthcare bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took time to call the former president of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh.

The House Democrats’ leader was not seeking spiritual guidance. What she wanted was Hesburgh to help lock up the vote of Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from South Bend, Ind., who was wavering over the abortion issue.

Donnelly ultimately pressed the “yes” button late Sunday night.

The incident, one of scores on the road to the Democrats’ healthcare victory, illustrates that Pelosi -- long the target of Republican attacks -- is beginning to play the game as well as powerful former speakers such as legendary Masters of the House “Tip” O’Neill and “Mr. Sam” Rayburn.

As with Rayburn and O’Neill, the key to Pelosi’s success on the healthcare vote is intimate knowledge of her members and the kinds of influences that will move them.

“She knows almost everything you ever want to know about every member of her caucus,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a Pelosi confidant.

But the San Francisco Democrat remains one of the nation’s most polarizing figures, and her drive to pass a bill -- without the support of a single Republican -- has heightened partisan tensions in the Capitol.

“She may get a stellar entry in the history books, but that entry will not include the word ‘bipartisan,’ ” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

“You strive for bipartisanship when you can,” Pelosi said in an interview Monday with ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer.”

“But you cannot let the lack of bipartisanship stand in the way of making this change that is important to the American people,” she said.

When Democrats won control of the House and Pelosi became speaker in 2007, Republicans eager to bring down her party attacked her as a San Francisco liberal.

But on the paramount issue of the last year, she defeated them and renewed her own party’s confidence in its ability to get things done.

While the House Republican campaign committee on Monday lashed out against “Pelosi’s government takeover of healthcare” in a fundraising appeal, Democrats suggested her win could strengthen her hand.

“There is nothing to strengthen a politician like a big victory,” said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.

On Monday, Pelosi savored a moment that she said was “on a par with passing Social Security and Medicare” as she prepared to send the bill to the White House in a ceremony held, incidentally, in the Capitol’s Rayburn room.

Pelosi overcame skepticism even within her party to deliver the bill.

Even after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate -- following Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts -- she pushed the White House to go with a broader bill rather than a scaled-back version.

“Everyone said this was dead after Scott Brown’s victory,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).

Martin Frost, a former congressman from Texas, said: “She was very firm with the president that he needed to go forward with the entire bill rather than doing it piecemeal.”

When House Democrats expressed distrust in the Senate to make the changes they sought to the bill, Pelosi stood before her caucus and told them to trust her.

Congress watchers say Pelosi’s drive to pass the healthcare bill was a political gamble in terms of the November elections.

“The No. 1 job of any House speaker is to hold the majority. If she does that in November, then you can put her in the annals with the great ones,” said Daniel Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond and expert on the speakership.

“But it’s a little early to do that yet,” he said.

Whether her efforts will strengthen her hand on other Democratic priorities, such as immigration, climate change and jobs legislation, is uncertain given the intense partisanship in Congress.

Observers say Pelosi’s future strength will depend on whether she can build on the healthcare victory.

“Great past speakers like Rayburn and O’Neill became great not by winning one vote but by parlaying victories into sustained policy accomplishments and by using them to cement their party’s hold on the House,” said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

“Has she helped the Democrats take the first big step toward a sustained majority?” he asked. “Or will resurgent Republicans use the vote to clobber the Democrats in the midterm election?”

David Gergen, a former White House advisor to Republican and Democratic presidents, said Pelosi had been a crucial ally to the Obama administration.

But, he said, “the rest of the story has yet to be written. . . . If the Democrats were to lose their majority, it’s going to have a very different ending.”