Nancy Pelosi and her army of whips had counted the votes and counted them again. But as they conferred in Pelosi's warren of offices just off the Capitol Rotunda in June, it seemed there was no way to get them to add up to 218. That's a majority in the House, the number it would take to pass the climate-change legislation the Speaker calls "my flagship issue." But in the middle of a recession, the measure that Republicans were calling a job killer seemed too much to ask of her stressed-out caucus, especially after Democrats had already put their necks on the line to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry and to pass a $787 billion economic-stimulus package, and when they were looking ahead to a massive overhaul of the health care system. Further, it would probably be futile. The Senate might not follow, and even the White House was sending mixed signals as to whether it wanted to do this on top of everything else it had going on in Barack Obama's first year in office.
But Pelosi was undaunted. "Everybody out of the office," the Speaker told her lieutenants. "Just give me the whip list" the confidential tally of where every member stood. Not long after, during a vote on the House floor, California Congressman George Miller noticed her moving methodically across the chamber from member to member. "Like Jaws," Miller recalls, humming the movie's ominous bum-bum-bum-bum theme music. A reporter sidled up to Miller, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and Pelosi's closest adviser, to ask, "What is she doing?" Miller chuckled. "She's getting the votes to pass the energy bill," he replied.
To win Rust Belt lawmakers, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman had whittled down the bill's targets for reducing global warming and switching to renewable fuels. But that was just the beginning of the dealmaking. He and Pelosi doled out billions of dollars in pollution allowances to utilities, industry and agriculture. One freshman Congressman from Florida demanded and got a promise of a $50 million hurricane-research center in his district. For others, there was money to train low-income workers for green jobs and to make public housing more energy-efficient. Though some in the White House had misgivings about the wisdom of pushing ahead, Obama worked the phones and even pulled wavering lawmakers aside during a June 25 luau-themed picnic on the South Lawn. The suspense went nearly down to the wire, but when the gavel fell at 7:17 p.m. on June 26, Pelosi had ... 219 votes.
Pelosi recalled that moment in a recent interview, barely able to get out the words as she battled a sore throat and nursed a cup of hot water, lemon and honey through a straw. "I never thought for one minute that we wouldn't win," she said in a raspy whisper. "Never."
It can be foolish maybe even dangerous to underestimate Nancy Pelosi. A former stay-at-home mom of five who didn't run for public office until she was almost 47, Pelosi holds the highest post ever attained by any woman in U.S. history, and stands second in line of succession to the presidency. She has consolidated more power than any other Speaker in modern history, scholars of the office believe. In the first year of the Obama presidency, she has used that power and an 81-seat Democratic majority, the largest either party has enjoyed in the House in 14 years to pass every item on his agenda: health care, energy, regulatory reform, education, pay equity. While most of the outside world's attention has centered on the intrigue and machinations of the Senate, where bills get snarled in procedure and the 60-vote hurdle to overcome filibusters, "the amount of things the House has done this year has been mind-boggling," says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
Pelosi's is a leadership operation that runs with uncommon discipline and harmony, in part because she has made sure that it is manned top to bottom by loyalists. Those with whom she has tussled over the years, and there have been many, have by and large been banished. Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell, for instance, was toppled by Pelosi's fellow Californian Waxman. (While the Speaker stayed publicly neutral in that battle, few doubt that it would have happened if she hadn't let it.) The one exception is majority leader Steny Hoyer, who prevailed with the Democratic caucus when Pelosi tried a clumsy power play at the outset of her speakership in 2006 and attempted to replace a former rival. But the Speaker and her second in command have, at least from outward appearances, maintained a truce.
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