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Pelosi on Obama and the Road to Health Reform: Never a 'Down Moment'

5 years ago
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She doesn't usually disclose what she and President Obama say to each other, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an exception a few hours after a sweeping health reform bill had become the law of the land. When it cleared the House on Sunday night, "he said that he was happier after the vote than he was the night that he won the presidency," she said, and laughed. "I said, 'Well I'm pretty happy, but I'm not happier than the night you won the presidency -- because if you hadn't won the presidency we wouldn't be here.' "

Pelosi recounted the conversation to a group of columnists she had invited to her office Tuesday to discuss an achievement that, in Obama's words, enshrines in law "the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care." Even as she spoke, the Republican Party was calling for "No More Madam Speaker" in an online ad that showed her surrounded by flames (a really terrible photo of her, too, I might add). But Madam Speaker, relaxed and euphoric in the afterglow of victory, described as "lower than a nano-something" the amount of interest she has in Republican "vilification" of her.

"I couldn't care less about what they say. If we weren't effective, they wouldn't be going after us," she said with a big smile, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall behind her and an organic dark chocolate bar on the table in front of her. When someone noted Karl Rove's prediction that Democrats would lose their House majority if they prevailed on health reform, she shot back: "Then you wonder why they (Republicans) would stand in the way of it passing."

The Democratic team of Pelosi, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been far more effective than Republicans had anticipated. Against all odds, Reid got 60 senators to vote for a comprehensive health care bill. Pelosi has been a battering ram for the Obama agenda, and on Tuesday he called her "one of the best speakers the House of Representatives has ever had."

At the roundtable in her office, Pelosi was even more effusive about Obama -- his eloquence, vision, strategic thinking, detailed knowledge, brilliance ("that saves a lot of time"), clarity, passion, communications skills, and on and on. She never alluded to friction that some reports have hinted at, and insisted in response to more than one question that there was never a presidential leadership vacuum. Furthermore, she said, Obama was "unwavering" in his support for comprehensive reform.

(He did suggest to ABC News in January, when his party was shell-shocked by the election of GOP Sen. Scott Brown to the late Ted Kennedy's seat, that "we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on." That might have been Plan B, a trial balloon or idle musings; in any case it was a short-lived idea and Pelosi didn't mention it).

Obama's "uncluttered" perspective on health reform also came in for praise from Pelosi. She said the other players have worked on the issue with one another for decades and would sometimes get into mini-spats that, in her playful retelling, sounded like scripts from a TV sitcom: "Remember when you tried that 20 years ago? We were so annoyed with you when you tried that ... Yeah, that was a good idea, it failed 20 years ago. Why are you bringing it up today?" At one point, the speaker said, she told Obama: "We have around 200 years of relationships around this table ... So ignore some of our, shall we say, frankness with each other. We know that we'll get to the place that you want us to be, and to the best chance of helping people and passing the Congress."

Despite her pastel fashion palette and frequent references to her grandchildren, Pelosi is by now well known as the iron hand pushing her colleagues toward that place. A hard-nosed veteran vote counter, she has gotten every Obama priority through the House -- from health care and student loan reform to new financial regulations and an energy bill that includes a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions.

On health care, Pelosi said she wasn't gunning for a bare majority of 216 votes; she wanted more and she didn't let anybody off the hook for political reasons. "Nobody. I never give passes," she said. She ended up with 219 on the massive Senate bill and 220 on a companion package of "corrections" demanded by the House.

While some may have experienced the health reform journey as a torturous slog, Pelosi apparently saw it more like an exciting adventure. She's a relentlessly positive thinker. "I don't ever remember a down moment," she said. Not even that Massachusetts election? "We saw everything as an opportunity," she said between bites of chocolate. "Whatever it is, we're pivoting from it, because we're going to do this."

Her operating mode stemmed from that conviction of inevitability: "It's going to pass, now let's engineer from there." That is, keep rejiggering the bill until she got past 216 votes. "This place is a giant kaleidoscope," she said. "You just turn the dial a little bit and different colors go into the center design, and then you turn it another way and different people come in."

Is health the hardest thing she's ever done? "Not a chance," Pelosi said. "Some of the bills I have to pass here are like dragging a truck across the continent with your teeth." (An aide later said winning Democratic support for financing the Afghanistan war last year was one example of that.) Health reform was different. It had many enthusiasts in the House, and in Pelosi's view, at least, it had a guaranteed happy ending.

"It never occurred to me it wouldn't happen," she said. "I never for one moment thought we weren't going to pass it."

Update: For more on the Pelosi session with columnists, check out Lynn Sweet's article in the Chicago Sun-Times. David Corn also wrote about the meeting.

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