WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has avoided serious damage from the relentless Republican effort to discredit her, though there's some evidence that the GOP is making small inroads.
Republicans have been battering the California Democrat over her assertion that the CIA misled her in 2002 about whether terrorism suspects had been tortured.
"This is a case where Republicans can't go much lower than they find themselves," said Steven Smith, a congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis, "so they have to go after the other side with whatever they can."
So far, though, Pelosi remains a very strong House speaker. She can claim a string of major legislative victories since January, including this week's passage of bills to give consumers more protection against credit card abuses and to crack down on financial fraud.
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Her Democratic Party has a 78-seat majority in the House of Representatives, and few if any of them are willing to criticize the speaker.
"At the end of the day, the focus will be on the torture policy," not Pelosi's recollections, said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
A May 19 Gallup Poll brought sobering news to Pelosi, however.
"Pelosi (is) largely losing the public relations game, as she gets a significantly more negative review for her handling of the matter than do the other major players in the controversy, including the CIA," Gallup analyst Jeffrey Jones said.
Those who are paying close attention to the flap — only 22 percent of Americans, the survey found — disapprove of her handling of the matter by 63 to 30 percent. That's a small sample, however, and Jones said that "if Democrats stand behind her, she's pretty safe, unless something else comes out that makes her story seem less plausible."
It appears that the public simply isn't very interested. Carroll Doherty, an associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which also conducts national surveys, found that last week the story was "getting some attention for an inside Washington story, but it's a modest number."
Last week's Pew survey found that 67 percent had heard about the closing of General Motors and Chrysler dealerships, but only 38 percent were aware of the Pelosi story.
Republicans are hoping to build a drumbeat of criticism that builds to a crescendo in time for the 2010 elections.
"She's certainly a more opportune target than President (Barack) Obama," said Peter Brown, a political analyst for the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Republicans, including House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio, haven't always been so quick to take umbrage at those who question the intelligence community's credibility. In 2007, Boehner said the intelligence community had misled him about Iran. This week, he said, "We are mixing apples and oranges here. It's different" because when the national intelligence estimate with regard to Iran was released, "it contradicted most everything I had been told in the six months leading up to it, and that's why I questioned what was coming out of this group that put the report together."
In addition, in an opinion piece last month in The Washington Post, former Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., former House Intelligence Committee chairman and later CIA director, said that "I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed," suggesting that briefers didn't explicitly inform top members of Congress that detainees already had been waterboarded. However, Goss went on to say that key Democratic and Republican lawmakers well understood what the CIA was doing and raised no objections to it.
House Republicans tried and failed Thursday to create a special congressional panel to "review and verify the accuracy of the speaker's" statements. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, called Friday for Pelosi's security clearance to be revoked.
Pelosi brushed it all aside Friday at a news conference that she called to announce that she wasn't going to talk about it anymore.
"I have made the statement that I'm going to make on this. I don't have anything more to say about it," she said. "I stand by my comment. And what we are doing is staying on our course, and not being distracted from it in this distractive mode."
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