ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a legislative sprint today. In the 100 hours over the next two weeks, the House will debate and vote on six items at the core of the Democrats' agenda. Among the six - giving government the power to negotiate drug prices for Medicare, and reducing interest rates for student loans.
One item not among the six is Iraq. That was the main topic of conversation when the new speaker sat down today with Robert. Speaker Pelosi called President Bush's Iraq policy a desperate cause, as we'll hear in this interview.
SIEGEL: Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, joins us from her office on Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program. And we're…
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): My pleasure.
SIEGEL: We're speaking shortly before the 100 hours are about to begin today. So there should be plenty of time for us.
Rep. PELOSI: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Can you begin by explaining for us what the posture of Democrats in Congress is going to be toward the president over Iraq? And what do you mean when you say the president can't expect any more blank checks about Iraq?
Rep. PELOSI: I believe that the war in Iraq is the biggest ethical challenge facing America. Without going into what the public already knows about how we went in and how our troops were not equipped and without a plan, we have a situation where the same people who are responsible for that poor judgment are asking us to trust their judgment.
So what we're saying the president is, make no mistake. Democrats support our troops, and we will fund their needs for those who are in Iraq now. If you wish to make a case for an escalation for the war, note first that Democrats oppose the escalation - secondly, that we will listen to your argument for its justification. But you must be prepared to justify.
This will be new to the president, because Republicans never asked any questions before. They just gave him a blank check.
SIEGEL: It's implicit in that demand for justification that if Democrats are not satisfied with the justification that they hear for a surge, that the president in some way will not get approval from the Congress for what he's doing. Is that a possible outcome?
Rep. PELOSI: Remember that the Congress is not the only audience here. The American people are. And they have spoken out very clearly for a need for a new direction in Iraq. They do not want a war without end, and that is what the president is proposing.
SIEGEL: You believe that his proposal is open-ended, an open-ended commitment to Iraq.
Rep. PELOSI: It has been. What he is proposing has been proposed before by him, and it has not worked.
SIEGEL: I want to read to you what Karl Rove told Time magazine right after the November election. When asked about the issue of Iraq in the election, he said Iraq mattered, but it was more frustration than it was an explicit call for withdrawal. If this was a get out now call for withdrawal, then Lamont would not have been beaten by Lieberman in the Connecticut Senate race. Iraq does play a role, but not the critical central role in the election. What do you think about that?
Rep. PELOSI: I repeat: Iraq is the biggest issue facing our country - the biggest ethical issue facing our country, the biggest economic issue in what it does to our budget. Look, we have lost our children, our precious treasure -over 3,000 in Iraq. The cost in lives, the cost in dollars - hundreds of billions of dollars, probably a trillion dollars by now - cost in our reputation in the world, cost in the readiness of our troops. If Mr. Rove wants to view it politically, that's what he does.
SIEGEL: Well, his view was that as an issue, the message of the electorate the way he's reading it is, yes, the people want a new policy, but they don't want to start right now getting out of Iraq. You read it differently.
Rep. PELOSI: The American people want a change of course in Iraq. They have - when asked the other day in one of their national polls, what is the most important issue you want the Congress to address? Forty-seven percent said Iraq. Second was the economy, at 7 percent. So whatever the - how we go forward with this, we'd like to go forward in a way that is positive, to work together with the president to change the mission there, to expand - to have not only military but political and diplomatic initiatives at work there.
But it is not about what Karl Rove thinks. It's about what the president does and how the American people have rejected it.
SIEGEL: But it does sound as though an increase in troops in Iraq is irreconcilable with the reading that the American people want to change course and get out. I mean, it doesn't seem you can easily spot the difference over that.
Rep. PELOSI: You cannot, even the generals who support the escalation. You know, some generals have been very clear. General Casey testified in December before the Senate that in his consultation with General - excuse me, General Abizaid testified - with his consultation with General Casey and General Dempsey, they both said that increasing the number of troops there will not solve the problem. So the generals on the ground have said that.
But even some generals not on the ground who say they support the escalation had said this could work. It'll take a few years. The American people have not signed up for that open-ended war.
SIEGEL: So it's not on the table as far as you're concerned, a plan for a few years.
Rep. PELOSI: It is, it is the - people have to understand the power of the president. He is the commander of the chief. And his poor judgment has gotten us where we are today, in a war longer than World War II - longer than World War II. And now he's asking us to trust his judgment again.
SIEGEL: Just a last point on Iraq. Why not do what some anti-war legislators say, which is cut off funding, do what the Congress did deep in the ‘70s with Vietnam? In that case, if it's - if the whole policy is broken?
Rep. PELOSI: Well, we Democrats have been very clear. We are not going to leave our troops high and dry in Iraq. Just because the president's judgment is poor doesn't mean that we are going to abandon the troops. So what we have proposed, Senator Reid and I sent a letter to the president on Friday in which we called for a change in mission - from combat to training. We've been calling for that for a long time - a mission that includes, certainly, the force protection of our troops who are there now fighting against terrorism and also just the support that they need.
We also said that in addition to military initiatives, we have to have diplomatic and political initiatives. The administration doesn't seem to understand that. But you cannot send the military in, however excellent they perform - and they have - without other initiatives.
So this is what Senator Reid and I - speaking for the Democrats in the House and Senate - have said to the president. We would hope that in his consultation with those who are advising him that he would take into consideration those terms under which we would like to work with him.
SIEGEL: And if you don't hear those terms expressed on Wednesday night?
Rep. PELOSI: We're ever hopeful. I want to give the president a chance to make his case to the American people for what I think is a pretty desperate cause. And I would hope that the president would see the light. And again, I've always said he's been digging a hole. He's so far from the light he hasn't seen it.
SIEGEL: But the desperate cause would be achieving victory in Iraq, as the president has said it.
Rep. PELOSI: The president never defined victory. We don't even know why we went there. I understand one of the terms that the president - one of the terms that they have that they want the Iraqis to live up to is that U.S. oil companies will have control of 75 percent of the oil production there. Now, I don't think that the American people sent our troops there to meet that standard.
So we want to see what the president actually has to say, and subject those criteria to a very harsh scrutiny - the criteria he's establishing for the Iraqi government - and establish our own standards on what we expect. We want to make the American people safer, the region more stable, and our military more strengthened. Right now, what the president is doing is not doing that. In fact, what he is doing is a threat to our military readiness.
SIEGEL: A desperate cause is a pretty - you regard things as pretty bleak over there when you describe it as a desperate cause. I mean, it sounds not worth pursuing.
Rep. PELOSI: What I'm saying is is that the plan that the president has pursued has not worked. Let me be clear: The president's policy in Iraq is a failure. We're asking the president for a plan to change course, to take us in a new direction.
SIEGEL: Another point. When you start your hundred hours of…
Rep. PELOSI: Right, which is soon.
SIEGEL: Which is very soon. We're speaking shortly after midday, and you're about to go there and start - well, doing among other things - you're going to end subsidies for big oil. What does that mean, exactly?
Rep. PELOSI: What it means is that we're going to put forth a legislation. We're going to do what we promised, six for '06. An effort…
SIEGEL: You're holding up what (unintelligible) that summarizes everything that you (unintelligible) on one piece of paper.
Rep. PELOSI: A card. This is a card that we promised the American people in the campaign that we would drain the swamp, that we would make this the most honest and open Congress in history. That we would conduct our work with civility and bipartisanship, and that we would be fiscally sound, no new deficit spending. That was - those were the rules of how we would proceed.
Today, we begin our first 100 hours, our policy package. We will begin by making America safer by passing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. Among the other first 100-hour initiatives, is the initiative you mentioned. We will repeal the subsidies to big oil and use the money for a fund for research for alternative energy resources.
SIEGEL: How big are the subsidies for big oil? When you look what you're about to repeal, how much money is liberated…
Rep. PELOSI: We're talking about $15 billion. We're talking about a significant amount of money. Mind you, this money is there as incentives for oil companies to drill when they are making record, historic profits. They don't need those incentives. We do need alternative energy resources.
And, by the way, this is a bipartisan initiative. It has passed the House two times already. It came out of the Resources Committee under the Republican leadership. So we believe that we are seeking bipartisanship and choosing those issues where we have a great prospect for success, and we will - that will take us to energy independence.
SIEGEL: What can you actually get done in this moment of divided government with Democratic majorities on the Hill? With the Republicans in the White House and several members of the Senate lining up for presidential runs in 2008, what can you do in a bipartisan fashion?
Rep. PELOSI: We could do almost anything that the American people want us to do. So their attention to this is very important. Inside maneuvering, that's we do here. Outside mobilization, the involvement of the public makes all the difference in the world. But we will set a different agenda for America.
We will have a bipartisan debate. I didn't get elected to be speaker of the Democrats. I was elected to be Speaker of the House. And I want us to have big, strong, bipartisan votes on everything that we're putting forth, especially in that first 100 hours.
SIEGEL: Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi, thank you very much for talking with us.
Rep. PELOSI: Thank you, Robert. It's my pleasure.
NORRIS: There is more of Robert's interview, including the speaker's view of what it means to have a woman in that job. That's at our Web site, npr.org.