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Legislative Legacy Works To Pelosi's Detriment

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Legislative Legacy Works To Pelosi's Detriment

Legislative Legacy Works To Pelosi's Detriment

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Nancy Pelosi spoke last night about the election in which she lost her position as speaker of the House.

(Soundbite of ABC News broadcast)

Ms. DIANE SAWYER (ABC): No regrets?

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): No regrets because we believe we did the right thing, and we worked very hard in our campaigns to convey that to the American people.

MONTAGNE: Pelosi was speaking with ABC's Diane Sawyer about Democrats losing their House majority.

INSKEEP: Nancy Pelosi was the first woman speaker. And during her four years in power, the House approved many major bills, including the health-care overhaul. That was widely considered the most significant piece of domestic legislation since Medicare.

MONTAGNE: It was also a source of much of the opposition that defeated her party. And one question now is whether the Democratic leader will remain in the House or retire.

Ms. SAWYER: Are the odds you'll stay?

Rep. PELOSI: In our caucus, we always do things by consensus. And when we have that consensus, we'll soon have some announcement to make.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Brian Naylor has this report on Nancy Pelosi's time as Madam Speaker.

BRIAN NAYLOR: From the moment she accepted the speaker's gavel, Nancy Pelosi understood her unique place in history - the first woman speaker of the House.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. PELOSI: For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. PELOSI: For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.

NAYLOR: On January 4, 2007,�Nancy Pelosi became the most powerful woman in the country, second in line to succeed the president,�in charge of the institution that set government spending and tax rates, the position that set the agenda for the 435-member House of Representatives.��

Pelosi's rise to power in the House was relatively swift. The daughter of a former congressman and mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi won a special election in her San Francisco district in 1987.�She had a post on the Appropriations Committee, and rose to become the Democratic whip and then minority leader. When Democrats won control of the House in the 2006 elections, the speakership was hers. She wryly hinted at the challenges that she discovered go with the post.

Rep. PELOSI: I am impressed by all of the decisions that the new speaker has to make.

NAYLOR: One of Pelosi's first decisions was to create an outside panel to review ethics charges. It was a key part of the Democrats' 2006 campaign platform.

Rep. PELOSI: You have to first drain the swamp. So our first order of business in the House would be a package of - for reform, for civility and for fiscal discipline.

NAYLOR: In Pelosi's first term as speaker, her biggest challenge was working with Republican President George W. Bush. She also had to come to grips with what would remain an obstacle throughout her tenure: a Senate that though also under Democratic control, had its own, slower way of doing things.

One issue where those difficult relationships proved insurmountable was the war with Iraq. Pelosi and most House Democrats had run on their opposition to the war, and promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Rep. PELOSI: We put a bill on the president's desk that would have redeployed the troops out of Iraq within the next year. The president vetoed it. Since then, we haven't been able to get a bill on his desk, because the Senate rules prevent that from happening. The American people aren't interested in the Senate rules. They're interested in ending the war in Iraq.

NAYLOR: On other issues, Pelosi had greater success.�Democrats raised the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, and they increased gas- mileage standards for cars. Spending on veterans went up, as did college aid.

But those accomplishments were dwarfed by an urgent request from President Bush's Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson. He called on Congress to rescue�the nation's biggest banks - many of which, in August of 2008, were teetering on the brink of collapse.�Pelosi went along.

Rep. PELOSI: If even a fraction of what they were saying is really the case, there is really need for us to proceed. It's not anything you can take a chance on. The only thing that was strange to us - that they had come in so late about a problem that was so vast. This was very, very, very bad news of a magnitude that spoke out for some of Congress's intervening.

NAYLOR: Congress ultimately approved what became the $700 billion TARP program. It was a vote that would come back to haunt Democrats, despite the fact that by most accounts, it had succeeded in preventing the nation's largest financial institutions from collapsing.�

In November 2008, Democrats gained another 21 seats in the House, led by enthusiasm for their presidential candidate, Barak Obama, and helped by the prodigious fundraising abilities of Pelosi.��

The heady days of the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president - on the Capitol's West Front - were soon tempered by the sober reality inside the building, as Congress tried to deal with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.�At the president's request, the House took up a massive measure aimed at stimulating the economy.�It passed without a single Republican vote.

Rep. PELOSI: Today, we are passing historic legislation that honors the promises our new president made from the steps of the Capitol, promises to make the future better for our children and our grandchildren. We are moving the ship of state in a new direction in favor of the many, not the few. With this vote today, we are taking America in a new direction.

NAYLOR: Pelosi faced another, more personal test that spring: whether she was telling the truth when she denied ever having been briefed by the CIA about enhanced interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists. The issue led to weeks of accusations and recriminations, about which Pelosi refused to comment. When she finally did address the issue, she leveled a serious charge against the CIA.

Rep. PELOSI: They talked about interrogations that they had done, and said: We want to use enhanced techniques, and we have legal opinions that say that they are OK. We are not using waterboarding. Thats the only mention that they were not using it. And we now know that earlier, they were. So yes, I am saying that they are misleading - that the CIA was misleading the Congress.

NAYLOR: The imbroglio soon passed, as Pelosi increasingly turned her attention to the massive overhaul of the nation's health insurance system. There were endless hearings, meetings between the White House and Democratic leaders, rallies and protests, and vocal opposition from Republicans from the start. But Pelosi never lost sight of her goal. Universal health care had been a longstanding priority for Democrats, and after an arduous display of legislative sausage-making, it was finally approved in March of 2009.

Rep. PELOSI: I knew I came here to vote for health care for all Americans. That has been a pillar of who I am, and who we are as Democrats. But I didn't think I would be leading the way as speaker of the House, that's for sure.

NAYLOR: And as he signed the health-care measure, President Obama had nothing but praise for the woman who guided its passage.

President BARACK OBAMA: One of the best speakers the House of Representatives has ever had...

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

President OBAMA: ...Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

NAYLOR: But the cheers quickly faded, replaced by taunts of angry voters this campaign season, many of whom denounced Pelosi's biggest accomplishments. They labeled the health-care overhaul Obamacare - a government takeover; they characterized the stimulus as a failure, and bitterly denounced the bank bailouts.

Pelosi was demonized by Republicans, as she had helped demonize an earlier speaker, Newt Gingrich. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, traveled the country on a Fire Pelosi bus tour, and Republican candidates across the nation acted as though she was their opponent.

Pelosi shrugged it off, saying the only thing that really mattered was winning. But not enough Democrats won on Tuesday to prevent Pelosi from having to relinquish the speaker's gavel to the man who handed it to her some four years ago, John Boehner.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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