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Nancy Pelosi Reclaims The Speaker's Gavel

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been a key to shutdown negotiations and remains so with a new, old title - speaker of the House. She took up the job this week for the second time. She's third in the line of presidential succession, also a grandmother, mother of five and a fan of Tony Bennett and the Grateful Dead. NPR's congressional teammates Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell have covered her rise and fall and rise again and join us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SIMON: Sue, let me begin with you. Nancy Pelosi was born into politics, wasn't she?

DAVIS: She was born into politics. And, you know, she's often been characterized as this San Francisco liberal, but she's really a daughter of Baltimore. Her father was a former member of Congress - Thomas D'Alesandro. He was elected mayor of Baltimore where he served for more than a decade. And she grew up in this family business. Her brother later became mayor of Baltimore. She did not leave the area until she married after college, and she moved to San Francisco. Her husband, Paul, was a real estate investor. And they moved to San Francisco and built a rather nice life there, and she had and raised five children. And throughout this time, politics remained in her life, but it was more of a hobby. And she volunteered for the local parties, the state parties. But it wasn't until she was in her late 40s - she was about 47 years old - when the local San Francisco seat opened up, and she ran and entered Congress. And it is safe to say that politics has really been her second career, not really the driving force of her life.

SIMON: And, Kelsey, when Nancy Pelosi came to Congress, there were not a lot of women serving in Congress. What helped her to succeed so quickly?

SNELL: Well, it was 1987 when she was elected. And in the class of '88, there were 26 women in Congress. That is a stark difference from where things are right now. And at the time, she kind of decided she wanted to grow in the ranks the really traditional way. She got assigned to some fairly powerful committees, including the Appropriations Committee, which is kind of the Washington code for being really good at cutting deals. She spent her time there learning about bipartisanship and learning how Congress spends money. She found that to be really a pivotal part of her time because it taught her a lot about how you rise through ranks. She also developed her style of being kind of proper and disciplined and really patient. That has been paired well with her fundraising ability. She is one of the best fundraisers in all of Washington, something she started back in San Francisco before she joined...

SIMON: Which gives her added political clout.

SNELL: Oh, she is - that has been one of the things that she is able to hold over people as she is kind of moving up the ranks is that she brings money to the table.

SIMON: Sue, when Democrats lost the House in 2010, a lot of people expected that Nancy Pelosi would step down as minority leader because she'd become a target nationally. This year, at the age of 78, there were a lot of people who said it's time for new leadership. She shouldn't run. How significant is it that she was re-elected this week?

DAVIS: You know, modern speakerships don't allow speakers to end on their own terms. So often they end in disgrace, as it did for former Speaker Newt Gingrich. They're forced out, as was former Speaker John Boehner. Or you lose the majority, as Nancy Pelosi did the first time around. She is the first speaker since Sam Rayburn in 1955 to be speaker, lose it and come back again. Sam Rayburn is one of the historic figures of Capitol Hill and of the speakership office. There's a building named after him on Capitol Hill. It is a testament to Pelosi, her staying power and her political prowess that she is back. And I think it is fair to say that her time here and her experience has made her one of the most consequential figures of the modern era in politics, that who she is and what she represents has already earned herself a place in history. What she now has, which very few politicians get, a chance to do is rewrite this last chapter. And she doesn't have long. She has agreed in principle to term limit. In order to get the votes she needed for speaker, she cut a deal with a younger group of Democrats who are hungry for some new blood in the leadership that says essentially she won't serve more than four years at most in the office.

SIMON: And, Kelsey, help us understand what she confronts now - Republican president, Republican Senate.

SNELL: She has the very difficult task of restraining an engaged and excited group of new members, both on the left and the right of her party, who want to prove to their voters that they were elected for a good reason. And that is really hard to do when you don't have the president of your own party. It's hard to get laws passed. She also has a very difficult challenge of raising up a new class of people to inherit her legacy. And that's something that she has been criticized for in the past is that she often has held onto power to the detriment of grooming a new group of people. Though, this time around, we're hearing a lot about new women in the House who could succeed Pelosi. We're talking about Cheri Bustos of Illinois or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. There is a whole new group of people hungry to move up the ranks in much the same way that Pelosi herself did.

SIMON: NPR's Congress team, Susan Davis, Kelsey Snell, thanks so much for being with us.

SNELL: Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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