It's Time to Give Nancy Pelosi the Credit That She Deserves

It's Time to Give Nancy Pelosi the Credit That She Deserves
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi celebrated her 75th birthday on Thursday much in the way her colleagues and observers on Capitol Hill might have expected — by striking a deal with an unlikely ally to stamp out yet another threat to the future of the American welfare state.

The Democratic leader's partner this week was her successor as House Speaker, John Boehner, the gruff Ohio Republican whose struggles herding the cats in his own caucus has invited unflattering comparisons with Pelosi's mortal lock on her own. On this occasion, the opposing partisan chiefs banded together to end a provision that endangered the rate of repayments to doctors serving Medicare patients.

The deal, which the Congressional Budget Office says will add $141 billion to the deficit over the coming decade, erased one of the more dangerous recurring crises (there have been 17 short-term "fixes" since 2003) faced by legislators. Though it passed mostly without comment outside of Washington, D.C., the simple fact of the agreement — the all-powerful congressional GOP signing off overwhelmingly on a bill to guarantee new funds for government entitlements — reinforced Nancy Pelosi's place as the great liberal leader of her generation.

During a remarkable two year run beginning in 2009 until Republicans regained control of the House in 2011, Pelosi was instrumental in shepherding through a legion of liberal legislation to rival the fruits of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" campaign of 1964 and 1965. As we look back, the Obama-Pelosi era resume fits comfortably in the annals of modern American liberalism, alongside Johnson and President Teddy Roosevelt — whose early 20th century Progressive movement saved the National Parks — and his cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, who took on the Great Depression with his New Deal in the 1930s.

Delivering Obama's legacy: On Nov. 7, 2006, nearly two decades after she arrived on Capitol Hill, Pelosi's colleagues anointed her Speaker of the House. The congresswoman from California would become the first woman to win the gavel, putting her third in line to the presidency.

Shortly after President Barack Obama's arrival, with the economy still in shambles following the 2008 financial crisis, Pelosi delivered the White House its coveted "stimulus." The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed just weeks after Obama took the oath, with 246 of 252 House Democrats on board. He signed it into law on Feb. 17, 2009 and injected what would be an estimated $840 million into infrastructure and entitlement programs, as well as grants for education, jobs programs and for use in subsidizing a series of tax cuts.

The 111th Congress succeeded on a number of issues where so many others had failed. It pushed through the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reinstated a woman's right to take pay discrimination claims to court, and in July 2009 delivered the most recent rise in the federal minimum wage, to $7.25, the last in a series of three adjustments Pelosi and House Democrats wrote into a 2007 law. In September 2009, it passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a step to slow the emerging student debt crisis. The law steered millions of dollars away from private lenders, essentially cutting out the middleman from the loan and aid programs.

These were significant victories, some long in the making, others quick and smart reactions to emerging crises. But compared to the fight ahead, they would seem almost minor. There was still a legacy to win, and Pelosi and Obama would earn it as they set out to reform the nation's rotting health care market.

Making Obamacare happen: The summer of 2009 turned out to be a bad time for Democrats trying to make the early case, both on Capitol Hill and in their home states and districts, for the most sweeping health care legislation in four decades. Democrats were seeking to rewrite a significant portion of the American social contract, and Republicans were simply not having it.

When Sen. Ted Kennedy died on Aug. 25, the movement not only lost its most revered liberal supporter, but saw its filibuster-proof Senate majority thrown into doubt. Kennedy had been ill and, in a Biblical twist, largely absent from the final stages of a fight he led for decades. With the arm-twisting "Liberal Lion" gone, it would be up to Pelosi to lead her increasingly fractious caucus into the Promised Land.

Even before Kennedy passed away, Senate and House Democrats had been quietly at odds over just how far the bill would go. Before the end of the year, the Senate would pass its "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." The plan was for the House to follow suit and vote through its own, more robust version, at which time leaders from both chambers would sit down to hash out a compromise bill. But when Kennedy's seat was lost in a late January 2010 special election, the Democrats' firewall was broken. The Senate would never vote on, much less approve, any new form of Obamacare. For the House, the choice was dire: swallow the initial language or abandon the legislation entirely.

With many Democrats in a panic, Pelosi kept cool and worked through a series of internal crises to stitch together disparate coalitions from within her own party. The Senate bill had further tightened pre-existing restrictions on the use of federal money for abortions, which angered pro-choice liberals. By the time Pelosi had brought them around, another group, led by an anti-abortion Michigan congressman named Bart Stupak, emerged to threaten to withhold their crucial support unless President Obama issued an executive order doubling down on that language.

Pelosi needed 216 of her colleagues to follow her. It was going to be damn close.

And then: "In a show of confidence," the Associated Press reported on March 21, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from the final Democratic caucus before the historic vote wielding a large gavel and leading Democrats across the street to the Capitol for the final series of tallies."

The White House had agreed to issue an order in line with the anti-abortion Democrats' wishes. When the final vote count came in, the bill had passed by a 219-212 margin. On March 23, Obamacare would become the law of the land, with no votes to spare in the Senate and just three in the House.

The next day, Republicans would introduce their first measures to repeal it. More than five years later, the law has survived countless GOP attacks, a Supreme Court case and a referendum in the form of a presidential election.

Pelosi, despite losing her speakership during the Republicans' 2010 midterm romp, remains the Democratic leader in the House. She was re-elected to her seat with 83% of the vote in 2014.

Unbreakable Nancy Pelosi: When President Barack Obama leaves office in January of 2017, pundits from across the ideological spectrum will alternately celebrate and skewer the mass of liberal legislation enacted during his eight years in the White House.

From the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 — the one bit of pushback against the big banks in response to the 2008 collapse — to the repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited gay men and women from serving in the military, the liquid hot debate that bubbled on the left throughout his presidency will begin to settle and harden into a series of bronze statues and plaques dedicated to his progressive achievements.

But when Obama looks back across the White House's South Lawn to wave one last presidential goodbye before boarding the Marine One chopper, he should look for Nancy Pelosi. Because nearly every significant political victory he has enjoyed since first entering 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., has her name — often literally — written all over it.