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House Leader Keeps Diverse Democrats on Common Course

Under Nancy Pelosi, party members have held together on 88% of votes. But not everyone in her camp is happy.

January 23, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Nancy Pelosi is explaining the ways of Washington, how second-guessing is second nature there, when she offers an unusual observation. "You have to understand," she says, "Washington is a secret-sauce town."

Which is her way of disdaining those who profess to know the perfect ingredient -- the secret sauce -- for political success, if only the likes of Pelosi paid proper heed. Pull the troops from Iraq. No, let President Bush find a way out. Offer a fix for Social Security. No, simply torpedo the president's plan.

Pelosi is the leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives, arguably one of the toughest jobs in politics. There is the hand-holding required of the party's 200-plus members, enough to create a morass but not a majority on Capitol Hill. There is the impotence -- and daily indignity -- of being outnumbered by unyielding Republicans.

And of course there is all that free, often contradictory, advice.

Pelosi, her smile unwavering, her energy unflagging, insists she knows the recipe for winning back the House in November. "It's one good month in front of another," she says in an interview between hometown appearances. "Beat Social Security. Make sure the world knows what's happening ... ethically. Attract the candidates. Raise the money. Build the unity for our message."

Her own sauciness shows in the way Pelosi dismisses all the carping and critics. "The fact there would be sniping among Democrats

While Republicans wrestle with a scandal-induced change in their congressional leadership -- with a vote set for early next month -- Democrats have wed their political fortunes to Pelosi, who has led the party in the House for the last three years. To many Democrats, that is a decidedly mixed blessing.

As the highest-ranking woman in congressional history, the 65-year-old Pelosi can boast a number of accomplishments. She has helped the party raise record sums of money, helped recruit a strong crop of candidates for November and presided over the most unified group of House Democrats -- as measured by party-line votes -- in many years.

Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who opposed Pelosi's rise to power, now praises her performance. "Nancy has worked hard to bring Democrats together," said Frost, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who waged a short-lived campaign for the job Pelosi now holds.

But there are still plenty of Democrats who fret that having a liberal, a San Francisco liberal, as House leader reinforces Democrats' wobbly image on defense and national security, boosting the odds against capturing the 15 seats the party needs to win control of the chamber.

A flashpoint came last month, when Pelosi seconded a proposal by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Her stance pitted Pelosi against others in the Democratic leadership -- who claimed to be blindsided by her announcement -- and shifted the debate on the war virtually overnight.

"Politically speaking, the president was bleeding profusely from an open wound," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan analyst and one of Washington's top election handicappers. "The decision to effectively move the spotlight from a place that was horrendous for the president to a question on which there is no public consensus was the biggest political miscalculation I have seen in at least a decade."

Pelosi flatly rejected that assertion. "I think the attention is very much there with George Bush," she said, adding that her support for Murtha was a personal endorsement and not a statement of the party's position. "You don't do that on a question of war," she said. "That's something that is a completely individual decision."

Moreover, Pelosi went on, her action should have been no surprise; she opposed the war from the start, even breaking with Democratic leaders on the key vote in October 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

A month after that vote, Pelosi was elected the Democrats' House leader, due in part to her antiwar position and frustration over the congressional gains Republicans made in the 2002 election. She promised a crisper message and a more confrontational approach to highlight Democrats' differences with the GOP. Since then, she has largely delivered, emerging as one of Bush's most unstinting critics.

The president was "oblivious," she said, as the White House stumbled in response to Hurricane Katrina. "In denial. Dangerous."

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