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With Control of Congress, Incoming Democrats Set to Elect Nancy Pelosi as 1st Female House Speaker

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Congress reconvenes today with Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in 12 years. In the House, Democrats are set to officially elect Nancy Pelosi to become the first woman ever to run the House. Pelosi has already outlined an ambitious plan for the Democrats’ first 100 hours in power. We get analysis from San Francisco Chronicle Washington bureau chief Marc Sandalow. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Capitol Hill, Congress reconvenes today with Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in 12 years. In the House, Democrats are set to officially elect Nancy Pelosi to be House speaker. Pelosi is to become the first woman ever to run the House, as well as the first Californian and the first Italian American to be speaker. Pelosi has represented San Francisco since 1987. She comes from a family with deep ties to the Democratic Party. Both her father and brother served as the mayor of Baltimore. She is also one of the wealthiest members of the House.

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi has already outlined an ambitious plan for the Democrats’ first 100 hours in power. She wants to increase the minimum wage, strengthen ethics rules, allow the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare recepients, increase federal support for stem cell research, ban gifts from lobbyists and clamp down on travel funded by private interests. In order to push the agenda, Pelosi has vowed to bypass House committees and move legislation directly to the floor in an effort to limit the ability of Republicans to make changes.

In November, hours after the Democrats seized control of the House, Pelosi also vowed to challenge President Bush’s Iraq strategy.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history. The American people voted for a new direction for a fairer economy, and Democrats intend to work for an economy where all Americans participate in the prosperity of our great country.

And nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than in the war in Iraq. “Stay the course” has not made our country safer, has not honored our commitment to our troops and has not made the region more stable. We cannot continue down this catastrophic path. And so we say to the president, “Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq.”

AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Pelosi, speaking on election night last November. Marc Sandalow is on the phone, is in Washington with us. He is the Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, has closely covered Nancy Pelosi’s political career for years. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARC SANDALOW: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Let’s start with how Nancy Pelosi came to this position today, where she becomes the first female speaker of the House.

MARC SANDALOW: You know, Nancy Pelosi didn’t even run for political office until she was 47 years old. That was almost 20 years ago. She had five kids in six years and spent most of her time working on behalf of the Democratic Party as a fundraiser, as a behind-the-scenes volunteer, and raising her kids. When her last kid was a senior in high school, she likes to tell the story about how she went to her and said, “You know, Sweetie, I’ve got an opportunity here to run for Congress, but you’re still in high school. If you don’t want me to do it, I’m not invested in it, I don’t have to do it.” And, as she quotes her daughter saying to her, daughter looked up at her, 16 years old, and said, “Mom, get a life.” So, Nancy Pelosi runs for office in San Francisco. She had replaced a congresswoman who had died in the middle of her term, Sala Burton. She won a very, very heated special election in San Francisco, and she hasn’t had a close election, re-election to Congress ever since.

By the time she got to Washington, because of her involvement in politics, because of her father and her family’s roots — she was raised in Baltimore, where her father was first a member of Congress and then the mayor of Baltimore, her brother was mayor of Baltimore, she had been involved in Democratic Party politics — by the time she first walked on the House floor in 1987, she says she knew already about 200 members by first name. So this is a woman of the institution.

She came to Congress pushing for things that now seem antiquated. She was pushing for federal money for a disease that wasn’t even being talked about on the federal level, and that was AIDS. But AIDS was ravaging part of her San Francisco community. She fought for more money for AIDS. She fought for human rights in China.

It was really not until she had been in Congress a good 10 years that the idea of going into the leadership of the party even came up. But once she decided that she wanted to jump into leadership — and that was in the late 1990s — she did it with the typical Pelosi 24-hour-a-day style. She’s a woman who raises an enormous amount of money. She puts in incredibly long hours.

People turn on the television, and sometimes they see this, you know, wide-eyed San Francisco liberal. And by any definition, she is a San Francisco liberal, but it misses what has led her to this place she’s at now. The reason Nancy Pelosi will become speaker today is because she has been a very, very successful tactician for the Democratic Party. She was chairwoman of the California Democratic Party back in the 1980s. She knows how to raise money. She knows how to put people in position to win elections. And if that means espousing liberal views when it’s appropriate, she’ll do that. If it means taking money she raises from liberal San Francisco and giving it to candidates who are far more conservative from her, who need to win election in, you know, in Louisiana or in Southern Indiana, she’ll do that, as well. So this is a very, very pragmatic politician who has been focused for the last 20, even 30, years on winning elections for the party.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Marc, now she has made this promise that within 100 hours, the Democrats will pass this gamut of reforms, and to do that, she’s going to steamroller the Republican minority in a way that the Democrats have complained in the past. How will this be accomplished, and how will she be able to fulfill her promise to have new openness in Congress, while at the same time getting this ambitious legislative agenda through?

MARC SANDALOW: Well, I don’t think she can fulfill both. I mean, you’re absolutely right. She made two promises. It was that 100-hour agenda that Amy read off some of the list. They’re increasing minimum wage and expanding stem cell research. She was very specific in the campaign about what she would do in the first 100 hours if Democrats won a majority. She also did make this vow, as you point out, to run the most open Congress in history, allowing the minority — in this case, the Republicans — the right to offer amendments, to demand hearings, to make changes to legislation. You can’t push through the ambitious agenda she wants in 100 hours if you’re going to allow open debate on the floor, if you’re going to allow Republicans a chance to amend things.

So for the first 100 hours, Democrats have said, we’re going to stick to the legislative game plan. In a sense, she’s going for accomplishments over accommodating the Republicans. This, of course, allows Republicans to scream “foul,” as they’ve already done this week in Washington, that here, out of the blocks as her first step as speaker, Nancy Pelosi is denying the minority, the Republicans, the very rights that she insisted she would give them during the election. But I think Pelosi was faced with either passing this slate of legislation or giving a more open process to the Republicans, and faced with that choice, it was pretty clear to most Democrats, she went for the accomplishments.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And at the same time, she has also damped down the left wing of the Democratic Party over the issues of the Iraq War and over the issues of holding the Bush administration accountable, possible impeachment proceedings. How has this gone, and what will be the consequences of these decisions?

MARC SANDALOW: You know, people are always amazed that back in Washington, where Nancy Pelosi is viewed as a strident liberal, that back in San Francisco, it’s the liberal wing of the party that has protested outside her office. It’s the left wing of the party that has tried to disrupt a few of her town hall meetings with demands that she be more strident and more in President Bush’s face, in a sense.

The package of legislation that’s coming in the first 100 hours, they may all be substantive, they may be important, but none of these are going to be difficult for Democrats to embrace. All Democrats are in favor of cutting college tuition costs for students, for increasing the ability for the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. These are things that the party can rally around, and probably 100 percent of them will vote for.

What Pelosi has not embraced yet are some things which she favors personally, but doesn’t necessarily think that the entire party will embrace: universal healthcare for all Americans, and as you point out, perhaps the issue that was most important to voters in November, getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. Nancy Pelosi, from the very beginning, was a sharp critic of going to war. From the very, very beginning, as Dick Gephardt, who was the Democratic leader in the House, stood with President Bush to support going to war in Iraq, Nancy Pelosi said, no, this is the wrong thing to do. But once the war has begun, Pelosi has refused to do what some on the left want her to do, which is to leave now, for her to simply cut off money to the executive branch to wage the war. You know, one way that if the House and the Senate disagree with the commander-in-chief over the war, one way they can flex their muscles is simply say to the Pentagon, “We won’t appropriate you any money.” You can’t run a war without money. It’s been suggested to Pelosi that if Bush doesn’t listen to Congress, that’s precisely what she ought to do. She flatly refused to do that.

I think there are a lot of Democrats, Pelosi included, who look back on what happened to the Democratic Party in Vietnam, and while academia and indeed a lot of history may smile on Democrats for being the party that said “out now” first, politics did not smile on the Democrats, and a lot of Democrats are well aware that when George McGovern called to pull the troops out of Vietnam, you know, he took a drubbing in the Electoral College. There are an awful lot of Democrats who oppose President Bush on the war, but are simply unwilling to cut off money or to do the extreme measures that would put the party in the position of being branded, in their mind, for maybe another generation as being weak on defense. So we’re going to see an awful lot of positioning on Iraq, and if the president, as it’s been reported, suggests a surge of new troops in Iraq, I think you’re going to hear a lot of screams and yells from the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, but when it comes to cutting off money to the Pentagon, Pelosi has said she won’t do it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And on the issue of possible impeachment hearings for or looks into the way that President Bush has handled intelligence matters and others, the threats by John Conyers, has she clamped down on Conyers and others who initially were talking about holding hearings?

MARC SANDALOW: She did. She says it’s completely off the table. And what you have to remember is, on impeachment, there are two issues here. One is Pelosi, I believe, thinks as a pragmatic issue, it gets you nowhere. President Bush has two years left in office. If you really were to hold impeachment hearings and vote on impeachment, that takes at least a year, so now we’re talking about, even if it were successful, getting rid of a president in the final year in office in what would be a very, very divisive debate, and installing Dick Cheney as president of the United States. Doesn’t accomplish much.

But it raises a deeper issue, and that’s, while Pelosi and her constituents — the city of San Francisco in this last election, the Board of Supervisors has voted to impeach the president, the city residents voted in the last election that they favor taking steps to impeach the president, her constituents are certainly in favor of throwing Bush out. But that said, Pelosi now is speaker of the entire House. She’s also the leader of the Democratic Party in the House from coast to coast. I think Pelosi’s calculation is, even if the people of San Francisco like it, she’s not going to win re-election in close districts, in places like Indiana, in places like North Carolina, if the Congress spends their time, instead of doing things like raising minimum wage, going after the president of the United States.

And it really speaks to the tugs on her from an ideological wings of the party, on the one hand, and the pragmatic pull, on the other hand, and having covered Nancy Pelosi as long as I have, I think the one thing that people are going to learn about her as speaker is she is far more pragmatic than she is ideological.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question will be, with making domestic issues first, whether people will allow that to go forward, as we saw with the protest with Rahm Emanuel trying to hold a news conference yesterday and being shouted down by peace activists chanting “Troops home now!”

MARC SANDALOW: I mean, you’re right about that, because next week the Democrats’ plan — what will be one of the most ambitious weeks the House of Representatives has ever planned. In four days, they’re going to raise the minimum wage, they’re going to adopt the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, they’re going to expand money for stem cell research, and they’re going to change the way the government deals with prescription drug negotiations. They vow they’re going to vote on all of those. It’s a remarkable week.

But overshadowing all of that is likely to be a prime-time speech by President Bush, where he’s going to talk about adding troops into Baghdad. If that’s true, this entire domestic agenda is overshadowed by something that’s much more in the forefront of most Americans’ minds with the war, and it will be impossible for the Democratic majority, the new Democratic majority, not to deal with that.

Now, what they’ve said they’re going to do is they will protest, they will tell Bush this is not appropriate after the election, they will have what they call new oversight. Instead of simply giving money in appropriation bills, there will be oversight in terms of, you know, the monies gone to Halliburton, maybe some accountability in terms of how we’re rebuilding Iraq.

But I think there’s going to be a big clamor from — it’s not just the left wing of the Democratic Party, but perhaps the center of the Democratic Party, saying, look, one of the reasons, maybe the reason, that Nancy Pelosi is running the House and that Harry Reid is running the Senate is out of frustration from the public — Democrats, some Republicans, and a number of independents on the war in Iraq. And if this party doesn’t deal with that issue before 2008, then voters are going to say, you know, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So I think there’s going to be enormous push for Democrats to do something.

The problem that Pelosi faces is, while she might strongly favor simply pulling out of Iraq, and she supported the plan by John Murtha of Pennsylvania to do just that as soon as possible, she knows that she can’t necessarily get a majority of her party to go along with her on this. So, on these issues, I think that we will see much slower progress than on this 100-hour agenda, which begins today at noon.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Sandalow, I want to thank you very much for being with us, San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington bureau chief, has been covering Nancy Pelosi for years.

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