WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets a fierce look in her eyes when she talks about the year's upcoming policy challenges: major health-care, energy and global warming legislation.
"Washington is a very perishable town. You have an opportunity," she said. "You must seize it. Otherwise, it may not be there"
That in a nutshell could describe the California Democrat's year so far. Since she began her second term as speaker three months ago, the House of Representatives has passed a $787 billion economic stimulus, a measure making it easier for workers to challenge unfair pay laws, a $3.5 trillion fiscal 2010 budget and an expansion of the children's health-care program.
Now come the most vexing tasks: overhauling a health-care system that many lawmakers regard as too expensive and often too inefficient, reducing carbon emissions and adjusting the federal role in education.
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"As time passes, keeping Democratic unity will be tougher. Navigating through health care and climate change will not be easy," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center.
Pelosi's seize-the-moment resolve is seen as her strength but also as her weakness.
Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University, compared Pelosi to legendary Democratic mid-20th-century House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
"He had the confidence of Roosevelt and Truman," Baker said. "She's more powerful than Rayburn because she has the Democratic caucus under control."
"She has done a pretty good job of listening," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss. "She hasn't put pressure on us, and I respect that."
Taylor, a moderate who's broken with Democratic congressional leaders in the past, warned, however: "A lot of freshmen rode into town on President Obama's coattails, and they're not about to desert him." If Obama stumbles, they could, too.
Republicans warn that it's not hard to do well at the start of a legislative session with a 76-seat majority and a clear mandate from the voters.
"Right now the Democrats, with the new president and Congress, are riding high," said. Rep. Peter King of New York, one of the Republican moderates who've formed coalitions with Democrats in the past. "But these things are cyclical."
Pelosi derives power from three sources: her own personality and style, her huge majority and Democrats' pent-up demand for pet bills.
The 69-year-old speaker grew up around politics. Her father and brother were mayors of Baltimore. She moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s after her marriage to Paul Pelosi, and she entered politics in the late 1970s as her five children grew older. She made her reputation as a Democratic Party organizer and fundraiser, winning a House seat in 1987 in a special election after the incumbent died.
She specialized in budget and intelligence matters and rose quickly, becoming the speaker when Democrats won control of the House in 2006.
Pelosi's first two years as speaker were only modestly successful. With a Republican president sharply disagreeing with most of her views, she was unable to muster the votes to stop U.S. involvement in Iraq or win passage of major spending initiatives. Her effort to replace popular Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., with gruff Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., ended in defeat when Hoyer beat Murtha handily.
So far, this year has been very different. Bush is gone, and Pelosi has a 254-member army, which means that she could suffer as many as 36 defections and still win. So far, though, most Democratic lawmakers are eager for Obama's agenda.
Also smoothing her path was a backlog of bills that Republicans had stymied for years. Within weeks this year, the House passed expansions of the national service program and health insurance coverage for lower-income children. It approved the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to make it easier for women and others to challenge discriminatory pay laws.
As King recalled, however, Republican then-Speaker Newt Gingrich had the same winning streak in 1995 — without White House support — as the House broke for its April recess. Republicans had taken control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and Gingrich rallied his party behind his "Contract with America," a multi-part plan for change.
Those first months were the year's highlight for Republicans. By that winter, they were in a bitter fight with President Bill Clinton over spending, a fight that shut down much of the federal government for weeks.
Some skeptics see similar pitfalls for Pelosi ahead.
They wonder whether she's overreaching. Two powerful committee chairmen were reluctant last month to back a plan to slap a 90 percent tax on bonuses that executives such as those at bailed-out American International Group earned last year, until Pelosi made it clear that she wanted the bill.
She got it, but the Senate slowed the process and no bill has yet been enacted.
Just as top House committee chairmen were wary of the tax, few had expected the Senate to adopt it without a struggle, meaning that the House vote was seen at the time as much as an expression of anger as the first step in a legislative process.
"She got it through. On the other hand she went too populist, too liberal," King said. "Her liberalism could hurt the Democratic Party."
Pelosi makes no secret of her liberal leanings, and Republicans gleefully point them out at every opportunity. They routinely complain that Pelosi hasn't consulted them on major decisions. The Republican Party was particularly irked by being left out of major talks on the economic stimulus even after Obama asked for their input.
"We really would love to see as Republicans some step by Speaker Pelosi to put that good will into action when we talk about crafting legislation," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va.
"As you've seen from the get-go, the rules that were put in place have not afforded us much opportunity to make our voice known on the floor."
Pelosi countered that she certainly wants bipartisan cooperation, saying, "That's how we operate."
Then she laughed, and she may inadvertently have offered her recipe for success, while foreshadowing potential trouble ahead.
"I'm talking about consensus on the Democratic side," she said.
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