The Speaker in Charge

This is one of those odd weeks when Congress may actually work. Both houses are likely to pass Democratic bills to expand SCHIP, the children's health coverage program. Yesterday, the House enacted lobbying reform, and the Senate may follow suit tomorrow. Also yesterday, the House passed a bill restoring the right of victims of pay discrimination to sue their employers.

In short, it's one of those weeks when Nancy Pelosi has no doubts about the wisdom of her decision to become speaker of the House.

"What's it like?" she asked herself, beaming, at the conclusion of a breakfast meeting with roughly 20 liberal journalists yesterday morning.

"It's fabulous! Absolutely fabulous!"

It can't always be thus. Her biggest frustration, of course, is Congress's inability to end the war in Iraq, which she terms "a huge moral catastrophe for the country." It is the public's biggest frustration as well, she says, and the main reason that popular support for Congress has plummeted.

In September, Iraq will once again be Congress's chief item of business, when Gen. David Petraeus delivers his state-of-the-war report.

Pelosi (understandably, given the administration's mountain of misrepresentation on all war-related matters) is wary. "The plural of anecdote is not data," she said. "I'm very concerned they'll pass off anecdotal successes as progress in Iraq."

The question in September will be whether congressional Republicans continue to support President Bush's open-ended commitment to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq while a civil war rages around them. To date, the Republicans' strategy, and not just on the war, has been to thwart the Democrats at every turn and to use the Senate's 60-vote supermajority requirement both to create a "do-nothing" Congress against which they can run and to spare their president from having to veto popular legislation. (Why they care about sparing Bush -- he will never face voters again; they will -- plunges us into the murk of abnormal psychology.)

The GOP strategy is not without its pitfalls. Republicans have succeeded in tanking Congress's approval ratings, but polls consistently show the public, most importantly in swing districts, preferring Democrats to Republicans. With this week's vote on expanding SCHIP, though, Democrats are convinced that the price of blocking health care for uninsured children is more than many Republicans are willing to pay. Bush has vowed to veto the legislation; Pelosi, noting with an almost incredulous glee that the administration will stand athwart children's health care on the grounds of opposing a higher tobacco tax, says, simply, "Welcome to this discussion."

Not all discussions, even in a good week, are so pleasurable to anticipate. Asked about the resolution that her congressional colleague Jay Inslee of Washington has introduced to impeach Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Pelosi put her hands to her temples as if to ward off a headache. For the past year, Pelosi has made clear to her colleagues and the public alike that she has no interest in pursuing the impeachment option, though Gonzales is certainly doing his damnedest to change her mind. She remains unpersuaded, believing that impeachment would fail and in the process would make weeks such as this one -- a week in which the public's business is at last getting done -- far more uncommon than they already are.

Pelosi understands the gravity of the damage that the administration has done to the Constitution and why that has impelled some of her colleagues to advocate impeachment. "If I were not the speaker and I were not in Congress," she said, very quietly, as she concluded her answer, "I would probably be advocating for impeachment." But the consequences she foresees from stopping the nation's business for an unwinnable fight outweighs those considerations.

Pelosi deserves considerable credit for holding her party together on a range of divisive issues, but she plainly views the coming fight among House Democrats on fuel efficiency standards as irrepressible.

The energy bill the House will pass this week contains no provisions that would raise those standards; such provisions, if any, await the outcome of a battle between Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, the Democrat who has represented Detroit and the auto industry in Congress since 1955 (that is, before tailfins).

"I respect all our chairmen," Pelosi said. But the legislation, she continued, isn't about them. "It's about our children's ability to breathe clean air. Nothing less than the planet is at stake. I love him [Dingell] dearly, but we have to prevail. ... The forces at work here [against stricter standards] are rich and entrenched," she concluded, "and it takes just a few [votes] to prevent us from unleashing the future."

Thus, the most elegant of happy warriors, in a week when it's fun to be speaker.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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