Nancy Pelosi crashed through a glass ceiling when she became the first female House speaker a year ago. That turned out to be the easy part.
The reality of leading a bitterly divided Congress at odds with a Republican White House is that victories are difficult and disappointments many. Chief among them for the liberal San Francisco Democrat was failure to deliver on her biggest goal: ceasing U.S. combat missions in Iraq and getting troops on their way home.
The House’s final days before winter break were reflective of Pelosi’s up-and-down year: a major success — an energy bill including the first increase in vehicle fuel economy standards in 32 years — and two bitter defeats.
Hamstrung by Republican opposition and veto threats from President Bush, Pelosi had to abandon her promise to not add to the budget deficit when the House agreed to a $50 billion tax-relief bill without making up the loss to the Treasury. The House’s final vote was on legislation giving Bush $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no withdrawal deadlines attached.
“The war in Iraq is the biggest disappointment for us, I mean the inability to stop the war in Iraq,” Pelosi, 67 and in her 11th House term, said in a recent round-table interview.
At the beginning of 2007 she believed Republican support for the war would erode. It didn’t. In fact, it solidified as the U.S. surge that began in the summer helped reduce the violence.
“They have stayed wedded to the president on this,” Pelosi said.
Time and again, the House passed bills setting a timetable for troop withdrawals only to see them fail in the Senate, where Democrats control the Senate 51-49, including two independents who usually vote with them.” Sixty votes are needed to overcome Republican filibusters.
Pelosi’s inability to force Bush’s hand on Iraq made her a target of an unlikely group: anti-war liberals.
They dogged her at public events and even protested outside her San Francisco home on Easter Sunday. In August, activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, announced she would run against Pelosi in 2008, contending the speaker had lost touch with people in her district who want troops home now.
Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, said the war presented Pelosi with an unwinnable dilemma. Anything short of immediate withdrawal infuriated the left, but Democrats also feared criticism from the right that they were depriving troops in combat of money they needed.
“The base is not going to be satisfied until every American comes home, and realistically that’s not something she can deliver,” Pitney said.
Pelosi said she will continue to push next year for withdrawing troops and improving the training and equipping of military units.
“The war, the war, the war — it eclipses everything that we do here,” she said.
Pelosi accomplished some key elements of her initial legislative agenda, including raising the federal minimum wage, lowering interest rates on student loans, adopting ethics reforms and tightening security at seaports and airports.
But Republicans and some analysts said it was at the expense of another of her promises: a more open, less confrontational culture in Congress.
Echoing complaints Democrats made when they were in the minority, Republicans griped they were shut out of the lawmaking process with limited opportunities to consider legislation or offer amendments before Pelosi rammed bills through.
“I’m very saddened that the one thing that she did promise, that she’d work in a bipartisan way, has been thrown out the window,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Pelosi made no apologies. “It was necessary to push very hard to get all of this accomplished,” she said.
Even when Pelosi bent the House to her will, she couldn’t push past Senate Republicans’ willingness to mount filibusters and veto threats from Bush.
“Overall I’m sure this is not the year she envisioned,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar for the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute. He credited Pelosi with reviving Congress’ oversight role but said she could have fostered a more bipartisan spirit.
For Pelosi the year began on an ecstatic high when, surrounded by children and grandchildren, some her own, she made history by taking the gavel as speaker. But as the months passed, the reality of the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress set in.
In an AP poll in December 2006, 22 percent of respondents said they had a favorable impression of Pelosi and 22 percent said it was unfavorable. An AP poll last month found her favorability rating the same — 22 percent — but her unfavorability rating had jumped to 38 percent.
Bush’s unfavorability rating stood at 61 percent in this month’s poll.
Pelosi’s predecessor as speaker, former GOP Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, had a 28 percent favorable and just 9 percent unfavorable rating in a Gallup poll 10 months into his first term. Newt Gingrich, who became speaker after the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, was rated 31 percent favorable and 57 percent unfavorable in a Gallup poll a year after he took office.
Still, Pelosi remains popular among fellow House Democrats, who see her as a strong leader willing to take risks. She met weekly with freshmen Democrats, many of them more conservative and also more vulnerable to election challenges than she is, and bent a bill on farm subsides to their liking rather than her own inclination.
Early in the year Pelosi outflanked the longest-serving House member, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy Committee, by setting up a separate committee to consider global warming, something that falls under his jurisdiction.
Dingell was miffed, but after holding up an energy bill over fuel efficiency standards opposed by Detroit, he ultimately agreed a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 pushed by Pelosi and Senate Democrats. Afterward, as Congress prepared for its winter recess, he had only kind words for the speaker.
“Let me quote Will Rogers, who observed that he was a member of no organized political party, that he was a Democrat,” Dingell said. “With regard to Speaker Pelosi, she’s a strong and effective leader.”
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas, AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.