Published January 08, 2009
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the 111th Congress this week in much better position to shepherd legislation than she was in two years ago. But whether she can run with the wind at her back this session will likely depend more on economic conditions than Republican opposition.
Pelosi gaveled in the new House on Tuesday, declaring, "We need action and we need action now."
The California Democrat had limited success in her first two years as speaker, unable to push through much of her action-packed agenda, despite her vow to "drain the swamp of Washington."
Pelosi found herself stuck in the mud after Republicans, who felt isolated by her hard-charging style, blocked her efforts to end the war in Iraq, expand a federal program for children's health care and increase domestic spending.
Now Pelosi, who in 2006 became the first woman speaker of the House, is getting a second crack at seeing a wide range of her priorities passed. With 256 Democrats in the House -- an increase of 21 -- and with a Democrat moving into the White House in less than two weeks, political analysts say they expect Pelosi to succeed at pushing through a variety of domestic proposals.
"She'll have a successful two years," said Martin Frost, a former Democratic congressman from Texas and a FOX News contributor. "She will be able to deal with Senate leadership that can deliver, that can pass legislation, and a president who will want to sign legislation rather than veto it."
But Frost did name one obstacle to Pelosi's success: extremely tough economic times.
"Members of the House and Senate are going to be asked to cast some tough, mean votes," he said.
The nation's consumer spending has plummeted, manufacturing has withered and job losses have grown in recent months, adding urgency to the legislative effort, in contrast to two years ago when the economy was in stronger shape.
To no one's surprise, Congress' top priority is getting the financial crisis under control. On Wednesday, Pelosi pressed top House Democrats to pass massive economic recovery legislation -- whose sum could total more than $1 trillion -- by mid-February, warning that inaction will lead to more job losses and economic pain.
Pelosi is also expected to turn her focus on rebuilding the military, combating global warming and expanding health care coverage. She is trying to give President-elect Barack Obama an early victory on children's health care by scheduling a vote next week on renewing the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Unless Congress acts, federal funding for the program will expire on March 31.
GOP consultant Paul Wilson said Pelosi will be able to get just about anything she and Obama want passed into law.
"She will either build her own pyramid in the sand or dig her own grave," Wilson said, adding that Pelosi won't face any backlash for at least a year and half because "you've got Republicans on their knees praying that Obama succeeds."
Pelosi was able to score a number of legislative victories during her first two years as speaker, including increasing the minimum wage to $7.25, adopting the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission and raising fuel efficiency standards for automobiles for the first time in more than a decade. But her accomplishments were overshadowed by Congress' failure to force President Bush to withdraw American forces from Iraq.
Other low points included Pelosi's presiding over the longest session in 20 years without passing a single spending bill, because of political gridlock, and succumbing to Republican pressure to drop her longstanding opposition to offshore drilling as gas prices soared last summer.
Pelosi will have to battle public opinion, which sank approval ratings for Congress to historic lows in the middle of last year. A RasmussenReports poll taken on Jan. 3 and 4 found that 59 percent of 1,000 likely voters surveyed said Congress last year had not passed one piece of legislation that would significantly improve life in America. The poll also found that 74 percent thought members of Congress are more interested in their own careers than in helping people.
However, the poll said 60 percent of those surveyed said it is very or somewhat likely that the new Congress will seriously address the most important problems facing the nation.
Rep. Adam Putnam R-Fla., said Pelosi will improve the ratings of Congress only if she allows the institution to "open up and breathe on its own."
"If the American people see the institution is working the way it should," he said, "then the House and Senate approval ratings will rise."
Pelosi is credited with mobilizing a splintered Democratic group of liberals, moderates and conservatives of different regions and ethnicities. But tensions within her party have been on the rise recently after a number of political power plays.
In November, California Rep. Henry Waxman, a liberal ally of Pelosi, wrestled the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from veteran Rep. John Dingell in a rare committee leadership fight. Pelosi stayed neutral in the fight, but her support of Waxman was well known and played a role in his victory.
This kind of power grab has led to speculation that Democrats may overreach with their expanded majority and ultimately fall on their face, much as they did under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
"The tendency in any majority ... is to overreach," Putnam said, "and while President-elect Obama has sent signals and set a tone for collaboration, the congressional Democrats began the new session by removing term limits on committee chairmen and further restricting the rights of the minority on the House floor.
"So she has really empowered her old bulls to be far more independent and given them their own fiefdom with really no strings attached, which will make it more difficult to go with centrist solutions," he said.
Frost said he believes Pelosi won't allow that to happen, because she was a member of Congress in the Clinton years and remembers the Democratic return to the minority.
"She has a historical model to look at," Frost said.
Despite a tighter Democratic grip on power, Pelosi has offered some olive branches to Republicans, specifically a signal that rampant partisanship will come to an end.
"As we in Congress pledge to reach across the aisle, we recognize that history will measure this decisive moment not just by what we do here in Washington, but by how we reflect and respect how all Americans work together for the common good to strengthen America's future and faith in itself," she said after being re-elected speaker.
Susan Molinari, a Republican consultant and former New York congresswoman who has known Pelosi for nearly 20 years, said she believes Pelosi will try to work with Republicans.
"I think governing from the middle has to be done," Molinari said. "Clearly President-elect Obama has made those indications with his (Cabinet) appointments. When we look at the height of difficulty that she will have to maneuver this Congress through, she will have to get as much assistance and support as she can."