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Democrat Nancy Pelosi Poised To Become House Speaker Once Again


Now that Democrats have retaken the House, Nancy Pelosi is poised to become speaker once again, though she faces some opposition from her own party. Her specter as a San Francisco liberal has been fuel for Republican campaign ads. Among Democrats, some say it's time for new blood. Today a group of 16 current and incoming House Democrats released a letter vowing to oppose her bid. But for now, no Democrat is running against Pelosi for speaker, and her legacy as an expert legislator and fundraiser remains. NPR's Scott Detrow joined me to talk through that legacy starting with her rise to speaker.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: She got into politics a little later in life, once her children were older. She worked her way up through the Democratic Party of California, chairing the party there before eventually running for Congress. She worked on several committees - the appropriations committee, the intelligence committee. But by and large, Nancy Pelosi's main path to power in the Democratic Party was being an excellent fundraiser and, once she made her way into Democratic leadership, being able to focus the party on specific messaging.

CORNISH: And then the Dems take the House in 2006, and she officially becomes speaker, which was a big moment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The honorable Nancy Pelosi of the state of California is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives.

DETROW: When Nancy Pelosi was handed the gavel, she said, all the children in the chamber - because people's families were with them on the House floor - she invited them all up.


NANCY PELOSI: I wanted to invite as many of them who wanted to come forward to come join me up here.

DETROW: So it's this really iconic image of Nancy Pelosi standing in the front of the House, holding the gavel for the first time, surrounded by children.


PELOSI: Let's hear it for the children. We're here for the children.

DETROW: And I think a lot of people remember that moment where Pelosi took control.

CORNISH: And her first major challenge is the financial crisis of 2008.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Dow tumbled more than 500 points after two pillars of the Street tumbled over the weekend.

CORNISH: George W. Bush is still president. But you have all these lawmakers coming together to create a bailout package. What is the image of Pelosi at that time? What is her role in that story?

DETROW: Yeah, this was this big piece of legislation, billions of dollars to financial institutions - incredibly unpopular idea. But the argument was this is absolutely necessary to hold up the global economy. There were all of these tense meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill where you had George W. Bush, his Treasury secretary, Nancy Pelosi, other congressional leaders all sitting around the table, figuring out what to do next. You may remember the first time that TARP came up for a vote on the House floor, it failed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Democrats and Republicans trudged to the House floor, united in their contempt for the $700 billion bailout.

DETROW: And there were split-screens everywhere of the vote going down and stock tickers plummeting at the same time.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If this holds, this will be the single largest point drop in the market's history in the year.

DETROW: Pelosi got Democrats in line to vote for that bill the second time around because it was going to save the economy.

CORNISH: Right. And she basically does it again, this time under a Democratic president, President Barack Obama in 2009.

DETROW: That's right - a whole bunch of early financial bills that really weren't popular, the stimulus package. There was the auto bailout during this period as well. And a lot of voters said, why are we spending this money? But Pelosi was able to wrangle all the votes and also spend a ton of political capital to get these things passed that supporters believed was really propping everything up.

CORNISH: And Nancy Pelosi also had a big hand in another major Obama administration effort, and that was the Affordable Care Act. Talk about how Nancy Pelosi played a role there, why she's remembered for it.

DETROW: Right. Let's go back in time to 2009.


BARACK OBAMA: Health care reform cannot wait. It must not wait, and it will not wait another year.


DETROW: On one hand, Democrats in the House and Senate have enormous majorities, majorities that they have not had at any point since then. But on the other side, we just talked about all the political capital that Democrats have had to already spend on passing unpopular things like bailouts. The economy was still a mess. And on top of all that, health care is just incredibly complicated to pass. So as this process dragged on throughout 2009 into 2010, there were so many moments where it looked like it was just going to fall apart. And Pelosi repeatedly argued with the Obama White House, argued with other Democratic leaders that they needed to stick to it.


PELOSI: We go through the gate. If the gate's closed, we'll go over the fence. The fence is too high, we'll pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we'll parachute in. But we're going to get health care reform passed.

DETROW: And she was ultimately able to twist enough arms to keep enough Democrats in line to get this bill to pass the House by the narrowest of margins.


PELOSI: The yeas are 220. The nays are 215. The bill is passed.


DETROW: President Obama ultimately signs it into law.


OBAMA: And we have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.

DETROW: It was a huge moment at the time. And I think it's even larger now because you look at all of the different things that Obama was able to accomplish that have been scaled back or reversed by President Trump. Obamacare clearly at this point is here to stay.

CORNISH: All this has essentially made her a political target. Can you talk about how that plays out in campaigns and elections, how she responds to it?

DETROW: Sure. There's a couple different fronts that Pelosi has to fight on. First of all, there's the way that Republicans frame her. She is by and large their favorite face of the Democratic Party. She stars in ad after ad after ad.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Amy McGrath is a Nancy Pelosi liberal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: In Washington, Feagan (ph) would vote with Pelosi for open borders and end...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Nancy Pelosi's trying to impose her values on Virginia and take us backward.

DETROW: That's why so many Democratic candidates promised not to vote for her. It was a way to neuter those attacks. Here's the other challenge that Pelosi faces. She's been a leader for a long time. By and large, most of the House Democratic leaders have been the same group of people for more than a decade at this point. That creates a backlog and a lot of frustration for House Democrats.

Marcia Fudge of Ohio is one of the Democrats who are trying to get a different speaker elected. She said there's just not room for Democrats to grow. And you've seen a lot of promising House Democrats viewed as future leaders like Chris Van Hollen of Maryland decide to just run for Senate or go back to their home states and run for attorney general or do something else because they just don't see any path forward within the House Democratic Party.

CORNISH: And then of course this past election night was a big win for House Democrats.


PELOSI: Thanks to you, tomorrow will be a new day in America.

CORNISH: And people are talking about whether or not Nancy Pelosi will be speaker again.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Speaker, speaker, speaker.

DETROW: I think it's fair to say that this is the toughest challenge that Pelosi has faced at this point. One reason is because of all of those first-time candidates who had promised not to vote for her in order to get elected. But here's the best thing she has going for her. Nobody has stepped forward to run against her. She has a lot of people organizing to block her from getting the votes she needs to be elected on the House floor, but there's no alternative. And it's pretty hard to take down anyone, let alone somebody who's been in power as long as Pelosi has, without a viable alternative.

And I think the fact that no Democrat has stepped forward to challenge her shows just how much control she has over the House Democratic Caucus - who gets appointed to what, who gets helped out with fundraising, who is put in a position to get bills passed with their name on it to help them run for re-election.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, thank you for walking us through it.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.