Throughout this election season, Republican pundits have warned voters that a Democratic takeover of Congress would shift Washington's primary focus from attacking terrorists to attacking the GOP. Instead of tracking bank accounts of foreign despots or eavesdropping on devilish communiqués, Democratic leaders, Republicans charge, would logjam the legislature with endless hearings to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy task force meetings and President George W. Bush's purportedly impeachable offenses.
The supposed ringmaster for that potential GOP nightmare of a circus: Nancy Pelosi.
But the California congresswoman and House Democratic leader has sought to soften her image in recent weeks, setting aside the revenge-driven vitriol rampant among her San Francisco constituents-and many far-left Democrats nationwide. During a 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl on Oct. 22, Pelosi pledged, "Impeachment is off the table." She called such proceedings a waste of time and said making Bush and Cheney lame ducks is good enough for her.
Polling data suggests Pelosi's wish might well come true. After 12 years of control, Republicans appear increasingly vulnerable to lose the House of Representatives. A Senate loss is also possible, and that would bring to power Democrats such as Vermont's Patrick Leahy, who would work to stop confirmation of Bush judicial appointees. But a House loss is more likely, so Republicans are asking what a Pelosi-led majority would seek to accomplish.
Assuming she could procure the necessary 218 votes to become the first female House speaker, the unabashed liberal has publicized a six-point agenda for the first 100 hours of Democratic control: Establish rules that would supposedly break the link between lobbyists and legislation; enact all recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour; cut the interest rate on student loans in half; put government pressure on pharmaceutical companies to force down drug prices for Medicare patients; and bring the issue of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research to a vote.
Beyond that initial burst of activity, Pelosi, 66, would roll back much of the Bush tax cut and raise taxes further on oil companies and corporations that operate outside of the United States.
In many ways, such measures constitute a Democratic version of the Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America," which reclaimed control of Congress for the GOP after a long stint in the minority. But Pelosi's instant agenda fails to address the two most pressing concerns of her supporters-Iraq and Bush. Like most candidates in her party, the shrewd daughter of a politician is eager to blast the current administration's war effort for campaign purposes, but reluctant to offer any specific plans for what empowered Democrats might do about it.
Pelosi's vow not to pursue presidential impeachment irked the hard-left element in her party, and her refusal to call for immediate troop withdrawal has prompted some of her Bay Area constituents to label her a conservative-no different than the Republicans in power. That Pelosi has accepted considerable corporate contributions in raising $50 million for campaign efforts this election cycle only furthers such progressive angst.
But taking shots from her base hardly seems to faze the thick-skinned Pelosi. On the contrary, it may well aid her calculated effort to become House speaker. With a more liberal voting record than many of her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi has failed to secure unanimous support in past votes for the party's top post. Several House Democrats have expressed dissatisfaction with her tendency to appear to be a partisan obstructionist. Pelosi's recent shift toward the center (if only until elected speaker) could appease such opposition.
Whether Pelosi would lead from the center or revert to the shrill partisanship many Democrats crave is anyone's guess. As long as Bush remains president, Democratic leaders have little hope of pushing through significant legislation, and ample time for lengthy hearings on possible GOP improprieties. Congressmen like John Dingle and John Conyers of Michigan, Henry Waxman of California, and Charles Rangel of New York are itching to launch investigations on everything from Halliburton to domestic wiretapping to supposed climate science cover-ups.
If Democrats claim the House on Nov. 7, Pelosi's 100-hours agenda could be the last thing on many party leaders' minds-including hers.