MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
And in this segment, a conversation with the speaker of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi says House Democrats have accomplished much since they became the majority. But she says her party's inability to make President Bush change course in Iraq makes that hard for people to see. I spoke with Nancy Pelosi this morning at the Capitol.
Madam speaker, welcome back to the program.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House of Representatives): Thank you, Robert. My pleasure to be here.
SIEGEL: When I interviewed you at the beginning of January, you said the following: the war in Iraq is the biggest ethical challenge facing America. It's nearly 10 months later. Would you concede that now, whether you like it or not, President Bush is going to get the Iraq policy he wants through the end of his presidency?
Rep. PELOSI: President Bush is going to get a policy that is very destructive to the security of our country, that is destabilizing in the Middle East, and is undermining our military capability, unfortunately. What President Bush has done is taken our nation on a course that is a catastrophic mistake. It's hard to exaggerate. I mean, you could never exaggerate the extent of the damage he has done to our reputation in the world and the capability of our military.
SIEGEL: But is it implicit in what you're saying that the Democratic majority gave it a good shot this year to try to change course and you didn't do it?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, we're still doing it. When the Democrats came into power, we came with a clear mandate from the American people for a new direction. Nowhere was that direction more clearly spelled out than in the war in Iraq. 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. And we will, again, continue to hold him accountable for the conduct of that war, and try to put on his desk legislation that calls for the redeployment of the troops within the next year.
SIEGEL: Public approval of Congress is said to be low, people who follow the polls. Why? Why do you think so?
Rep. PELOSI: Because of the war. By and large, the lack of action on the war has eclipsed everything that we have done here. I come to this table in, at sort of the end of the first session of Congress with great confidence about what we have accomplished to make America safer with our 9/11 Commission recommendations, and our big increase in benefits for our veterans, making our economy stronger with our Competes Act, our innovation agenda, raising the minimum wage - first time in 10 years — the biggest package for college affordability since the G.I. Bill, a biggest ethical package in the history of the Congress. The list goes on and on about protecting the American people, restoring the American dream, and doing so in the most ethical and open manner.
SIEGEL: But you're saying the inability to get something passed that would have changed course in Iraq obscures that for the American public?
Rep. PELOSI: That's right. I've said most of the work that we have done in Congress to date has been eclipsed by the lack of success in ending the war in Iraq. That doesn't mean we will not continue to move strongly on our legislation for a new direction. For example, now, we're proud of what we have done. We're confident that we'll improve the lives of the American people. But there's much more that needs to be done.
SIEGEL: What do you make of an explanation one sometimes hears for the low approval ratings of the Congress, which is that instead of searching for common ground with the Republicans who might be amenable to compromise on SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Plan, or even Iraq for that matter, that in the Capitol, we're still seeing as much polarization as we did when the Republicans were in charge here?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, the same people who say find common ground are those who say stand your ground when you can't find it. And that's what we do. And as a matter of fact, on every piece of legislation that we have passed and the president has signed, we have had overwhelming bipartisan support. In fact, on SCHIP, we had overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate. We just don't in the House. We're 10 votes short, 10 Republicans short of 10 million American children getting health insurance.
SIEGEL: So what do you do then in that case, when you're 10 votes short?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, we keep fighting. And we will continue the fight because we will not compromise and negotiate away one of those children. We have listened to their concerns. We have introduced a second bill, which clarifies some of the concerns they have. But we will not say to a million children or 5 million children, as the president wants us to do, that you're not going to get health insurance, even though you're entitled to it.
SIEGEL: The Associated Press reported today that the president could see signing a bill that increased the eligibility ceiling for the SCHIP program — this program to deliver health insurance for poor children — to families of four making $62,000 a year, no state exemptions. When you hear that, should Americans think that Democrats and the White House are at least within shouting distance of a compromise on SCHIP or no?
Rep. PELOSI: I don't know what the president said, but I have had no overture. Senator - Republican senators and Democratic leaders have asked the president for a meeting on this subject. He refuses to meet with us. But he does communicate through the press. He knows what our legislation says.
So let's be clear about this: You either share the value that 10 million children in our country who are eligible should have access to health insurance — and that's a value. It's not even an issue in our country; it's a value; it's an ethic.
Over 80 percent of the American people support what we're doing. The president is in isolation on this.
SIEGEL: So when I asked should we think that you're within shouting distance of a deal on a bill, I'm hearing, the short answer I'm hearing is no.
Rep. PELOSI: Well, I know. I certainly hope so. But there are two places to come to agreement. One is in the Congress of the United States to be able to override a presidential veto. Or the other is for the president to agree that we will be insuring 10 million children in America. We have met the concerns that they have raised, and we have been consistent with the SCHIP as it has been enforced under President Bush to date. He shouldn't have a problem with this.
SIEGEL: On to another matter, the acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission opposed Democratic efforts to increase her agency's funding. You called for her resignation.
Rep. PELOSI: Yes.
SIEGEL: Can you now negotiate with her about some level of increased funding if you've already said, off with your head and we don't want to deal with you anymore?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, she's an employee, the acting chair of the commission. This is about President Bush and his policies. For too long now, they have looked the other way while food has come into our country uninspected - 1 percent of the food in our country is inspected. Much of it has come from overseas, where the safety and health standards do not exist, where products that are being sold to our children, the toys our children have, one of them I had yesterday had 200 percent of the safe limit for - of lead in it.
This is about, here we are on Halloween. Our children are in costumes. They're carrying around plastic pumpkins, many of them laden with lead beyond a safe level. We're getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner, where much of the food may be imported and uninspected. We're buying toys for our children — and in my case, grandchildren — for Christmas, which can be a danger to their health. We don't want to menace people. But we do want to change the way government protects the American people.
SIEGEL: We had an interview like this as you had only recently become speaker and were about to launch a 100-hour blitz that week. I'm just curious, after this time, what is it about being speaker and leading the majority that has surprised you? What are the things that have happened that you didn't expect would be true of this job?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, I - the word surprise is not one that I have very much use for as speaker of the House because I have to be prepared for anything. But what I would have hoped for were that the president would have been more responsive to the wishes and the voices of the American people, who so strongly want us to redeploy our troops out of Iraq, when it is safe, honorable and responsible.
And I know now where he's coming from and I didn't know this before. The president wants a 10-year - at least another 10 years in Iraq and maybe longer. He envisions a Korea-like presence there for many years to come. This will cost us trillions of dollars. I had hoped that the president was looking for common ground for a redeployment out of Iraq. I had hoped he would have been closer to our position.
SIEGEL: If we were to talk again in another year and a half from now, let's say, if there were a Democrat in the White House, and you're still speaker, and there's still Democrats…
Rep. PELOSI: Oh, good.
SIEGEL: …here, would the Democrats in the House still be passing resolutions that would require a deployment or withdrawal from Iraq or a timeline?
Rep. PELOSI: Yes, absolutely.
SIEGEL: If it were President Clinton in the White House, you wouldn't regard that as a constraint upon a Democratic president?
Rep. PELOSI: No. First, let me say, I believe very strongly that we will have a Democratic president in the White House. And whoever he or she is, we would hope would be attuned to the wishes of the American people, to the strength of our military, to the stability of the region and the security of our country.
SIEGEL: Well, Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Rep. PELOSI: It's my pleasure.