WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is working hard to make sure that the fiery liberal wing of the Democratic Party remembers that she is one of them. She is also going out of her way to reassure opponents of the war that she is on their side.
Her efforts are taking place in speeches and interviews off Capitol Hill and away from the constraints and compromises inherent in running the House. Liberal lawmakers and activists accuse Pelosi of being too cautious.
Now, with Congress's approval rating plummeting following its passage of an Iraq war-spending bill without a troop-withdrawal timeline, the Speaker is signaling that Democrats will be more forceful in challenging the president.
In recent speeches and interviews, Pelosi has acknowledged the left's frustration with the war and asked it to work with congressional Democrats to help alter the political climate.
"Unless we make our own environment, we'll be wedded to incrementalism," Pelosi told a group of college students on Tuesday at a conference hosted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Democrats cheered remarks made this week by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who publicly questioned Bush's Iraq policy.
Not only has Pelosi restated her calls to end the war in Iraq, she has made passage of an energy and climate change bill a staple of her Speakership.
"This is urgent ... the special interests are entrenched," she said Tuesday. "You have to help jar that loose."
During the Memorial Day recess, Pelosi traveled to Greenland and Europe to meet with scientists and government leaders to discuss global warming. In January, she surprised Democrats by announcing the creation of a select committee on global warming.
Senior Democratic lawmakers agree with Pelosi that the precipitous decline in the polls reflects the public's frustration with Iraq.
"As usual, Congress as a body and in the whole is behind public opinion. That's where you see the frustration, especially ... in our Democratic base," Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said.
"I certainly think the growing American support for changing policy gives us not only - I wouldn't call it leeway - incentive, and I think it is our responsibility to pursue every avenue that we can to change policy," House Majority Leader
Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters earlier this week.
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To reassure the Democratic base, Pelosi has sharpened her rhetoric.
Speaking last week to the liberal pressure group Campaign for America's Future, she repeated her previous comments that the Iraq war was a "grotesque mistake" and a "tragedy."
In an interview with MyDD.com, a liberal blog, she called the Iraq war supplemental spending bill "weak" and reminded netroots activists that she opposed the bill. She said that the next measure would include "timelines, timelines, timelines" to end the war in Iraq.
On June 15, Pelosi told Bloomberg News that Congress would consider legislation similar to an amendment introduced earlier this year by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
"We will have legislation that will change the mission in Iraq from engaging in combat to training the Iraqi troops, to fighting terrorists and also to protect our forces and our diplomats there and to protect our interest in the region," Pelosi said.
Despite the historic drop in popularity, Pelosi's aides believe that they have successfully changed the debate on the war in Iraq and that the public's frustration with the course of the war has provided an opening to be more confrontational with
Bush and to pursue tougher measures to end the war.
Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told The Hill that Rep. James McGovern's (D-Mass.) amendment to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 180 days would garner 190 to 200 votes today; 171 lawmakers voted for the measure in May.
Pelosi sought to reassure liberal voters by reiterating that the House passed hate crimes and minimum wage legislation and that she favored universal access to healthcare. Additionally, she reminded liberals that the House passed the Employee Free Choice Act, a top priority for union groups.
On the immigration bill, she staked out a more liberal position than the Senate and president. She told MyDD.com: "Central to all of that is family unification, which has always been one of our principles."
Pelosi touted the passage of what she called "a very progressive hate crimes legislation," noting the measure's provisions on "gays, lesbians, [and] transgender."
"Many people said to me, 'Pull it, you'll never pass it.' And I said, 'Well, we're going to fight for it.' And we did. And we won."
Several liberal Democrats defended Pelosi, saying she is constrained by a diverse caucus, the inability to muster 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, and Bush.
"Oh, her heart is with them," Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said. "She could make some bold stands ... That would reestablish credibility with our base."
© 2007 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp.