Pelosi's moment to soar -- or crash

This is Nancy Pelosi's moment.

There is no way for the public to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Capitol this week or whether enough votes will emerge to enact health care reform.

But if the House speaker were Barry Bonds, this would be like a high fast ball over the plate. She is in her power zone. Ms. Pelosi is not speaker because of her commanding presence, oratorical skills, liberal ideology, sweeping vision or even her magnificent San Francisco district. She is speaker because of her mastery of the inside game.

To obtain the 216 House votes needed to pass health care without any Republican help, Democrats must rein in their party's liberals balking over the timidity of the Senate bill, moderates worried about its costs, abortion foes concerned about the uses of public money, and freshmen who worry that a "yes" vote will bring a swift end to their tenure.

To succeed, House leaders must balance a mind-numbing set of conditions to simultaneously protect vulnerable Democrats and satisfy their ideological extremes (Dennis Kucinich, meet Heath Shuler). That means understanding what circumstances would allow Eastern Shore Rep. Frank Kratovil to flip his "no" vote from November and keep East Los Angeles Rep. Maxine Waters from rebelling. It means recognizing freshman Rep. Scott Murphy of New York's anxiety over being branded a big spender in the Hudson Valley, and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas' concerns over being attacked as big government Democrat in central Florida.

There is a reason that Ms. Pelosi was not on the Sunday talk shows this week. She is consumed by the hand-to-hand legislative combat that anti-Washington forces snarl at, even as they demand the results that make it necessary.

Ms. Pelosi has contorted many of her own political leanings to get on the cusp of 216 votes. She abandoned the public option, voted in November for abortion restrictions she finds offensive, and appears willing to support at least a limited tax in the future on "Cadillac" health plans that her friends in organized labor find abhorrent. She is also willing to take the heat over bending parliamentary rules so long as it doesn't hurt her vulnerable members. Many fail to see beyond Ms. Pelosi's well-coiffed appearance and liberal, fiercely partisan instincts. To understand the speaker, it is important to understand where she received her political education.

Ms. Pelosi grew up in Baltimore's Little Italy, where her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was a member of Congress for eight years and mayor for 12. Central Casting couldn't have done better if they were looking to fill the role of a cigar-chomping political operator. "Big Tommy" was dapper, smooth and fearless, possessing the look that many Americans would expect if they could bust open the smoke-filled back rooms.

"My desk wants to know your position," a persistent Baltimore Sun reporter once blurted out after D'Alesandro repeatedly declined to answer a question. The mayor responded by putting his ear to his own desk: "My desk tells your desk to go [expletive] itself."

Ms. Pelosi would never use such language, but her approach is similarly hard-headed. She has replaced the ashtrays in the Capitol with chocolate but is most comfortable in the same back rooms. She talks of the "cold-blooded, reptilian" decisions she makes when distributing campaign dollars. As minority leader in the mid-2000s, she threatened to strip members of their committee assignments if they didn't' stay loyal to the party. As speaker, she muscled Rep. John Dingell of Michigan -- who came to Congress when Ms. Pelosi was a teenager -- out of his post as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in favor of Rep. Henry Waxman of California, in order to move energy legislation.

The late Rep. John Murtha, Ms. Pelosi's close ally from Pennsylvania, once told me what he often told old-school Democrats who worried about installing a West Coast liberal woman as their leader: "Don't think she's from San Francisco. She's from Baltimore."

It is not clear whether Ms. Pelosi will succeed this week. But this is her legacy. If she fails, buildings will still be named after her for being the nation's first woman speaker. But her reputation for legislative accomplishments hangs in the balance.

If she succeeds, in addition to health reform, America may finally gain an insight into why Ms. Pelosi was the first woman to shatter the marble ceiling.

Marc Sandalow is the author of "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power." He teaches politics and journalism at the University of California's Washington Center. His e-mail is marc.ƒ

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