When the Republican congressmen meeting in a basement conference room at the Capitol last October got word that Democrats had just elected Nancy Pelosi as minority whip, they broke into applause. They weren't cheering because the California Representative had made history by becoming the first woman to win a top leadership post in the House. Many of the Republicans, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, considered the San Francisco Congresswoman a lightweight whose liberal voting record would help them paint the Democrats as out of synch with moderate voters.
One key Republican who did not join in the cheers that morning was Tom DeLay, who for almost eight years has been majority whip, the House G.O.P.'s top enforcer and vote counter. The conservative Texan knew his new adversary was a mediagenic and relentless political organizer, a firebrand who could invigorate her party's liberal base just as he does the Republican right. "She's a worthy opponent," says DeLay. "I've always sort of liked her. But, obviously, I want to beat her at every turn."
This year Pelosi and DeLay will be battling each other not just on the House floor but also across the country, as they spearhead their parties' respective campaigns for control of the House. It promises to be a bruising fight. The Democrats need to pick up only six seats to take back the House, and history is on their side: the party of the President--even a popular one like George W. Bush--typically loses House seats during a midterm election. Bush's high poll numbers have so far created "no coattail effect," admits Virginia Representative Tom Davis, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. Democrats are looking to draw blood on domestic issues, where they think Bush is vulnerable. Last week, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt pounced on a White House proposal to raise interest rates that college students pay for federal loans (Bush quickly backed away from the idea), while Pelosi called Bush's education budget "$4.2 billion short of the promise of leaving no child behind."
But the rebounding economy and a lack of other rallying issues could help the Republicans. The Democrats "don't have a whole lot of running room this time," says California Representative Ellen Tauscher, the national vice chair of the Democratic Leadership Council. Congressional redistricting, which is mandated every decade in accordance with the new Census count, is still under way, but so far the redrawn lines appear to favor most House incumbents. No more than two dozen of the 435 House races may really be up for grabs, and many of them are in Republican-friendly areas in the South and Midwest. DeLay predicts the G.O.P. will defy history and actually increase its majority in November.