Getting Her Way: Pelosi's Powers of Persuasion

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

For more than 20 years before she was elected to Congress at the age of 47, Nancy Pelosi's full time job was rearing her five children. She calls it invaluable training for her current job as the first woman Speaker of the House, in which managing her 253-member caucus can be a daily challenge. "Having raised that many children and grandchildren she has eyes in the back of her head," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and an assistant to the Speaker. As Pelosi, 69, nears the most important vote of her career, she'll need to draw upon all her experience as a leader (and parent) in doling out sticks and carrots to reach the magic number of 216 votes to pass health care reform.

Every minute of floor votes this week, Pelosi spent chatting up wavering members, as she was Thursday, sitting with Rep. Zach Space, an Ohio Democrat, who voted for the House version in November but now says he's undecided. And she's seen a steady trickle of Yea votes being declared, including today Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, Rep. John Boccieri of Ohio and Rep. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. She smiles and nods and prods, but for the most part favors carrots over sticks. She has a near eidetic memory for peoples' names and faces; she can tell you the names of nearly every one of her members' children and grandchildren. She sends hand-written cards congratulating parents on their offspring's milestones. "She's very gracious, courteous. She was raised in a family of politicians," says Rep, George Miller, a long time confidante and fellow Californian. "Illness, sickness, births, graduations and acceptances to college: she celebrates people's good fortune."

She also has been tackling members' problems with the bill issue by issue. Earlier in the week she worked with the New York delegation to iron out changes to the Senate bill, which punished "do-gooder" Medicaid states that already provided the most generous benefits — essentially robbing the rich states to pay for the poor ones. She also met with the Congressional Black Caucus to address some of their concerns about affordability and access. And she then spent a lot of time with the Hispanic Caucus assuaging their worries about provisions that prevent illegal and some legal immigrants from purchasing insurance on the new exchanges that will be created to help the uninsured. All three groups now support the bill. "She's always better informed about the public policy of the issue," says former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, another California Democrat who recently left the House for a State Department job. "She's always very responsive to constituents. She knows the politics of every district. She knows exactly what the sweet spot is for all 216-plus. That's unseen before in an American woman, probably in any woman."

And while she is no Tom DeLay, the former Republican leader known as "The Hammer" whose hardball tactics once earned him a rebuke from the House Ethics Committee, she has her limits. "I can think of three different instances" where during a vote Pelosi resorted to twisting arms, says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who served as Pelosi's deputy for five years. "But on the other hand I can think of a thousand different instances where it was never needed because of the work that was done beforehand by listening and hearing and having people understand and finding what was important to people and making that part of the solution, the resolution basically."

Pelosi's sticks today are much like her punishments as a mother. "As one of five kids, you wanted her attention. The worst thing she could do is ignore you," says Alexandra Pelosi, her youngest daughter. "If she cut your head off, I don't know that you'd know that you're bleeding." In Congress this means committee assignments, says Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Dem. "She controls the steering and policy committees," Clyburn says. "Everyone knows that what the speaker wants, the speaker gets."

The daughter of Thomas D'Alesandro, a former congressman and mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi's approach is often compared to his old-school Italian style of patronage. After all, as a child, she was often tasked with maintaining her father's "favors" list. But, while there is a certain degree of ring-kissing that still goes on on Capitol Hill, the Speaker is actually more like her mother, says Tommy D'Alesandro, Pelosi's brother and another former mayor of Baltimore. "You could cross my father, lie to him, oppose him," D'Alesandro says. "But our mother — you couldn't lie to her. You couldn't oppose her. God help you if you crossed her."

Those who've opposed Pelosi have soon found themselves stripped of a committee: just look at John Dingell and Jane Harman — two Dems who clashed with Pelosi and who somehow ended up losing their committee chairmanships. She also tends to reward supporters with plum assignments over those who fought her. Former Texas Rep. Martin Frost waited for years to get on the Appropriations Committee and, after challenging Pelosi for minority leader, soon watched fellow Texan Chet Edwards get a coveted committee seat.

This time around, though, the role of bad cop has been played largely by outsiders. President Obama has leaned heavily on many of the fence sitters and outside groups have threatened to support a primary challenge against any Democrat who votes against the bill. The final fence sitters are Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak and upwards of 10 pro-life members who are unhappy with the Senate's abortion language, as well as a few particularly vulnerable members, such as Virginia Rep. Glenn Nye, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, and Pennsylvania Rep. Chris Carney. While it's crucial for Democrats to pass health care ahead of the midterm elections, Pelosi is fully aware that if she cajoles too many of her vulnerable members into taking a tough vote she could risk losing her majority. Like any seasoned parent, she's focused on getting what she wants with the least blowback.