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Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, signs the Senate health-reform bill yesterday on Capitol Hill. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/The Associated Press)
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, signs the Senate health-reform bill yesterday on Capitol Hill. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/The Associated Press)

'The most powerful woman in American history' eyes next mountains to climb Add to ...

The most powerful woman in the history of the United States is not done yet.

Nancy Pelosi channelled Ted Kennedy in calling health-care reform "the great unfinished business" of American society. The unflappable Speaker of the House of Representatives has secured her place in history, along with that of her President, after corralling enough wayward congressmen to stroke the late Mr. Kennedy's longed-for legislation off the 'to-do' list.

With Barack Obama poised to sign health-care reform into law today following Sunday's passage in the House of the bill adopted in December by the Senate, Ms. Pelosi emerges as an even more inescapable force in U.S. politics. She can be expected to use her enhanced stature to push other coveted items on the liberal Democratic agenda while the party still has a majority of seats in both chambers of Congress.

But having expended so much political capital during his gruelling and all-consuming mission to see health-care reform through, Mr. Obama is not likely keen to risk any more of it by pressing for other divisive legislation ahead of November's midterm congressional elections.

Ms. Pelosi, who turns 70 this week, is not known for taking no for an answer. Her obstinacy paid off in keeping health-care reform on the front burner when the administration, in the wake of the crippling January loss of Mr. Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican, considered abandoning its signature initiative. Mr. Obama is grateful to her now, and let her know it during a telephone call after the House vote.

"What passed [Sunday]night meant more to him than any election night could have," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs offered yesterday.

Mr. Obama has now emerged as a winner on the issue that has mattered most to his presidency. But the price of victory was steep. His decision to follow Ms. Pelosi's advice and press on with health-care reform in the face of Republican antipathy effectively killed any hope of negotiating bipartisan compromises on other issues. And it forced Democrats from conservative districts into the unpalatable position of choosing between their party and their own political survival.

Neither the GOP nor the now endangered Democratic incumbents are likely to forget that soon. Mr. Obama's vow to fight for immigration reform, tougher financial regulations on Wall Street, climate change legislation and an education overhaul - causes close to Ms. Pelosi's heart - will run up against that harsh reality.

"To think that we're going to see another major domestic initiative that isn't focused on jobs between now and the midterm elections just isn't plausible," Boston University political science professor Douglas Kriner opined in an interview. "If all [the administration]was interested in was counting major pieces of legislation, they could have moved on other issues before health care and gotten more of them. But if health care is going to be the defining issue of the Obama presidency, then the administration might argue it was worth the sacrifice in terms of other agenda items."

Despite the show of gratitude now, tension between Mr. Obama and Ms. Pelosi - whose girlish giggle and penchant for high heels belie her scrappy Baltimore roots and iron will - has been a constant of his presidency. On health-care reform and climate change, among others, the House under Ms. Pelosi's leadership has consistently produced left-leaning bills that frustrate the administration's desire to chart a centrist course and win Senate support for its goals.

The first House health-care bill, passed in November, envisaged the creation of a state-owned health-care plan for Americans under 65, fuelling Republican depictions of Mr. Obama's reform as a "government takeover" that have stuck to the President since. The Senate bill adopted on Sunday by the House contains no such "public option."

Ms. Pelosi, who is the first female Speaker of the House and has been described by The Economist as "the most powerful woman in American history," is said to have often chided the President for not moving aggressively enough to champion liberal causes. And while Mr. Obama appears to rarely lose his cool, she clearly gets to him. The New York Times reported that the President shot back at one of her upbraidings with: "I am not a stupid man."

The "next mountains" on the President's list, Mr. Gibbs continued yesterday, include a jobs bill, financial reform and a new campaign finance law, "as well as big comprehensive energy and immigration legislation." But the odds of successfully scaling any one of those peaks just got longer.

Mr. Obama secured the support of all 23 House members of the Congressional Hispanic Congress for his health package with a vow to do "everything in my power" to forge a bipartisan deal on immigration reform this year that would set out a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

And South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham last week joined Democrat Charles Schumer in laying out a four-point proposal for immigration reform, just as he is working with Democrat John Kerry on a climate change compromise.

But Mr. Graham is a lone wolf in his party. And the Republican leadership in Congress has even less incentive to co-operate with Mr. Obama now that health-care reform has given it a campaign issue it believes will energize enough Tea Partiers and independent voters fearful of bigger government to help it take back control of the House in November.

Ms. Pelosi, who represents an über-liberal San Francisco district, has long rubbed Republicans the wrong way. Her well-earned gloating in the wake of Sunday's vote has only stoked their vitriol.

"You strive for bipartisanship when you can. When you find your common ground, that's great. If you don't find your common ground, you have to stand your ground," she told ABC News yesterday after Republican House Leader John Boehner derided "Nancy Pelosi's one-party rule."

The polarizing Speaker is an even more effective GOP fundraising tool than Mr. Obama. Visitors to the Republican National Committee website yesterday were redirected to FireNancyPelosi.com. "Forty more [GOP]seats means no more Madam Speaker," read the pitch. The RNC initially hoped to raise $402,000 in 40 hours, but surpassed the goal handily. By last night, with more than 19 hours remaining on the clock, it had received pledges worth $780,000.

Ms. Pelosi, who revels in her lightning rod status, is no doubt pleased.

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