CQ Roll Call’s Emma Dumain interviewed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Dec. 5. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Q: So it seems like you know you don’t know what’s going to come out of this appropriations package but it seems like between saving the tax extenders package deal that would not have been good for your party before the break and then looking ahead to next week where your party could be swooping in to save the government from shutting down, you know, you must be feeling kind of good right now in terms of the relevance of your party and the role that you play in sort of making things happen.
Pelosi: Well we have a higher standard than that. I mean …
(Loud burst of laughter)
Pelosi: … seen a tax package that was more job creating than the rest, but had to go to a place that we rejected what they were doing that I thought would be harmful. It would be harmful in the following ways: It made permanent tax breaks in the hundreds of billions of dollars for business, and ignored the needs of working families in our country. And, making it permanent tied our hands for what we could do in tax simplification and reform later as well as investments we wanted to make by reducing the revenue force.
So anyway, that had to end. The minute we got wind of what that could be and that it had a path, before it gained any respectability, I called our members and said, ‘This is what I think is happening’ — of course it’s all behind closed doors — ‘but I have to know that I can say to the president that this will, we will sustain a veto.’
The president was very aggressive on this, he knew the downside of what they were putting forth. So that put an end to that and I give my members credit — because some of the things sound very appealing, if you take one piece here and one piece there. They’re appealing to their districts, but overall they understood that it was going backward in terms of what we need to do to reduce the deficit, create jobs, lower taxes for the great middle class in our country.
Q: You know, our understanding is that this was a deal brokered between Harry Reid and House Republicans … going forward, you know, Harry Reid is your guy in the Senate right now and you know this for the next couple of weeks they have the majority and they were the ones you were looking to to make sure that they were gonna table certain pieces legislation. You know, next year, for the next two years, you guys are kind of on the same … are you concerned about, did you see Harry Reid’s role in brokering this deal as any sort of harbinger for how you’re going to work together?
Pelosi: I don’t really know enough because by the time we weighed in the deal was gone. I don’t know how, about Harry — Senator Reid, Senator Reid was in it but I know that the … many members in the Senate, of the House Demo — excuse me — of the Senate Democratic caucus didn’t support the arrangement, but I don’t know whose doorstep to put it at, except that it was a work in progress and before it progressed any further we wanted to put an end to it so I have great confidence in Harry Reid, I don’t know what the arrangement will be over there if they still have a 60 vote rule requirement and that’ll make a difference …
Q: You know, people like to say, or you know, it’s easy for people say, ‘Oh the House Democrats are a minority, they’re irrelevant.’ What do you say to that?
Pelosi: Well, I don’t think anyone is irrelevant. I just think the Republicans were irrelevant when they were in the minority. And especially not in the minority when your President in the White House is a Democrat, so there is leverage, and we have the ability to sustain vetoes, but we also have a relationships with the American people, and we can make … the contrast as initiatives come forward.
I think we’ll have an impact on the nature of this appropriations bill. I don’t think, unless your side can always produce the votes, you’re empowering the other side to make changes in the legislation. And so if they have 218 votes for whatever they’re doing, no matter how bad it is, that’s one thing. But I don’t know if some of their people will vote — I don’t know, we will see.
But I don’t … I’ve never thought anyone was irrelevant here, as I say, especially if … your party has the president in the White House.
The value that we have is that we have a united caucus, and we do because we build consensus. I don’t determine what the approach is we will take. As I said to you, when we saw what was happening with the bill, I immediately called the members to see what authority I might, in fact, would have to say to the president, ‘We will sustain the veto.’
Q: Well, you know and that’s, you know, a credit to your caucus, you know, I think that people would say that John Boehner doesn’t have as many members perhaps willing to work together as Democrats have willing to work together. But I think that many would argue that is also a credit to you and how you run your caucus and how you work with your people. So you know I guess the question is how, you know you say you know you’re here as long as your people want you to be here and as long as you feel like —
Pelosi: Maybe not that long. (laughter) Maybe not that long.
Q: Yeah. But for the time, for the time being.
Pelosi: The Affordable Care Act was my mission.
Pelosi: And we got it done, we’re going to protect it.
Pelosi: But I want to, when, whenever the day comes, I want to leave with a — it will be up to the caucus how they proceed after that.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
Pelosi: But I want to give them good options.
Q: Yeah. But what, what do you think, for the time being, inspires that kind of loyalty towards you and the, the desire to want you as the leader and to want to work with you?
Pelosi: Well I, I guess you’d have to speak with the members but I do, as I said, people hear me say, I consider myself a weaver at a loom just … pulling together all the threads of different opinion in our caucus, whether it’s ethnic, regional, generational, gender-wise, we have a lot of different views. Our caucus is the most diverse caucus that probably existed in the history of the world.
If you look at our caucus versus the Republican caucus, or even the entire Senate, you see a beautiful diversity that goes with it. You see personal experience that is different.
Pelosi: And so our, our, my job, is to make sure that we have the strongest possible fabric woven from all those different threads, and that consensus that we build is what produces the unity because it’s not from on up high. So if I have to say to people, ‘This is a path that we have to go to vote with the Republicans to get something done, you don’t have to vote for it, but I have to give it some support.’
Pelosi: Then they understand that. If you’re saying to people, ‘This is terrible but you have to vote for it,’ that’s a harder sell than if you’re saying, ‘We just need to be helpful and you can you know make their own judgment.’ And they always make their own judgment.
Q: Yeah. Do you — there’s you know a lot of talk about you know the, the influence you have in the caucus and the, you know, your description of building consensus and working with members and the incredible fundraising ability that you have.
Pelosi: I do.
Q: (Laughs) Could anybody else do this job at this moment in time but you?
Pelosi: I certainly hope so.
Pelosi: I certainly hope so. I, I, — tooting my own horn — my, the support I have in the country, originating in the great state of California, is substantial and enables me to amass resources because they believe in what I believe in and also want to see a Democratic majority. California, we’ve led the way to winning the House. We’ve led the way starting in 2000 by winning five seats. We were 26-26 going into the election, we were at 21-31. We had 10 points. And that now we’re 39-14, Democrats to Republicans, when you know a dozen years ago we were 26-26.
So from a political standpoint, from numbers of members who have come, from a financial standpoint of idealistic progressives, donors there, California really was the golden — not only the Golden State — but the golden goose in terms of ideas, talent and financial resources. So that took us to a path to victory and I think there’s an appreciation that we hadn’t won in ‘94, ‘96, ‘98, 2000, 2002, and I took over in 2004. We didn’t win that year but we built to win in 2006. So I think that, that’s why I became speaker. And a lot of the people that we have brought in over time share values that we all share, so.
I feel very proud of the relationship that I have with the caucus but I also trust in them to do whatever they need to do once we go forward.
Q: So you know part of you know the thing about your job is, you are and have been in a position to elevate, help elevate, help facilitate the growth of members of your caucus — people like Xavier Becerra and Chris Van Hollen and Steve Israel and now [Ben Ray] Luján and Donna Edwards sort of have a seat at the table. Are you sort of cognizant of how, you know, in elevating these members, you’re sort of helping to grow the next generation of leadership? Is that something that you’re focused on?
Pelosi: Well, that’s always a responsibility that we have. But there are other places I’ve probably appointed more women to be, where I had the discretion, to be chairs of committees or place them in a position where they would become chairs. I mean, when I became speaker, I appointed — God rest their souls, they passed away — but Stephanie Tubbs Jones to be chair of the Ethics Committee; Juanita Millender-McDonald, the chair of the House Administration Committee; Louise Slaughter to be chair of the Rules Committee. Now I have Linda Sánchez to be [ranking member] of the Ethics Committee now. How I’ve lined up people on some of the committees — both women and minorities — Bennie Thompson, there were people much senior to him who wanted to be in that position. That was a new committee so I had the ability to put that lineup in place. And so, it’s not just about leadership, it’s about committees as well. And, um, this place is competitive in some ways but there’s so much opportunity. And beyond having a role, it’s what your standing is on an issue. I’m trying to enable women to have standing on certain issues by showcasing them on those issues. So it’s a … sometimes people say, ‘You’re not out there enough,’ and I say, ‘No, but my whole point was to put other people out there on these issues.’
Q: So, it’s a cool thing that you’ve got to do though, to put these people in the spotlight, help them grow and develop and sort of hone their portfolios. But you also feel like that’s the responsibility of you as a leader, to help get these people ready for whenever there’s another opportunity for them or the day, not when you step down but, you know, Mr. Clyburn, Mr. Hoyer, any one of the people occupying that position.
Pelosi: It’s a generational change that will have to take place. But also it’s just the electoral politics. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was running. She was in, thought she might be, in the primary. I took the unusual step as the Democratic Leader to go down pre-primary to her district and speak on her behalf, to just say that she’s the person that we wanted here. So that, and in many other cases, to encourage women to — well, not only encourage but to help them to win. So it’s, politically, it’s um, from the standpoint of leadership but also committee assignments. And we’ve, I’ve always made sure that, women had a very strong role in whatever arena that they were playing in.
Q: And again, you see that as the responsibility of the leader to help?
Pelosi: Yes. And minorities too. Not just women but women and minorities and persons, women of color. That would be even more exciting.
Q: Have you seen over your years here any younger members who remind you of you when you were younger and coming up in the House and in politics?
Pelosi: Oh, I’m in awe of the women that I see, the younger women that I see. They do things that I could never do. I mean, I did my life sequentially — I had my five children, raised them, came to Congress. These women — as my own daughters do, work in professions and they have children that they’re raising. I, I, I just, that’s so remarkable to me. So I learned a lot from the younger women here and what they’re accomplishing. Of course, I have five children; most people don’t have five children now. But some do. And I see great things in the young women in Congress, and who aspire to Congress, are accomplishing. How they juggle home and family is beautiful to behold.
And I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do that.
Q: Why do you think people were so excited with the Ben Ray Luján pick? It inspired such goodwill towards you, people were just so thrilled
Pelosi: Ya, they were thrilled.
Q: And surprised, pleasantly surprised.
Pelosi: I think he was surprised.
Q: So what … Yeah, I think so too . I think we were all surprised. So what kind of, what kind of, you know, what does that say that everyone was excited about that? What kind of statement was that making?
Pelosi: Well, he is remarkable. He is a remarkable young man. We had many good people who were put up for the job, and any one of them would have done a very good job. I chose Ben Ray [Luján] because I’ve known him for a long time, I know his family, I’ve visited them in New Mexico on many occasions. I have seen how he is received by his constituents at the grassroots level. How he has been respected by the tribal people – in Indian Country in his district, how effective he is at political action. And everything that he was tasked to do here or volunteered to do here, he did excellent. He went beyond the gold standard that was expected of him.
And so he is a beautifully, a lovely person, his father a speaker of the assembly or whatever they call in New Mexico.
Q: Yep, yep
Pelosi: Assembly. They call it different things in places. In Baltimore where I grew up it’s House of Delegates, in California it’s Assembly, other places its different things. But anyway, so I knew that those family values that he had and how committed he was to working for families in his country, so from a standpoint of policy and values — very strong. As they all are. In terms of effective political action he just knows how to get it done. I’ve seen him in action. He knows how to get it done. And I could make the same statement for many of the people who were in the running. The respect he commands among the members is just remarkable. They were stunned, I think, and also so happy when he was, uh, when he was chosen. And we had a wealth of good candidates. He has a package that was very appealing to the members. And they trust him and that is the most important thing. Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel, they were members that people had confidence in. And that’s really an important part of it.
And so, I just took my own council on this, I didn’t talk about it to many people, so people were kind of surprised. I would kind of gently ask about how he was viewed for one thing or another and it was all very positive. I am very happy about it because it also sends an important message to the Hispanic community about a young leader. I don’t know how old he is.
Q: I also think that, my impression from speaking to your members, is that they were excited that it wasn’t, you know, a quote-un-quote obvious pick. Somebody whose name they had heard. It wasn’t people who were jockeying for it. It seemed to them that when there is criticism of ‘Oh there’s no place to go,’ ‘Oh I’m impatient,’ ‘Oh I want to get up in the ranks,’ that someone who could be low key and not outwardly ambitious would get elevated to this role. And they were happy that you had done it.
Pelosi: They were pleased, but we had a tremendous response from all over the country on him.
Q: It wasn’t … You were thinking more broadly of sort of the response from the community. Certainly you were also thinking about the response from the caucus though?
Pelosi: First and foremost, because he’s an officer of the caucus who post his name in nomination. They had to vote for him. But also he has a beautiful reputation. I could make a case for any one of the people I would have announced. Everybody who put his or her name forward was excellent, and we want to find a role for everybody who was willing to take on that responsibility. It’s a very challenging job.
Q: So you are interested in sort of seeing where people like Jim Himes and Jared Polis … they’re people that you’re watching too?
Pelosi: Yeah. And they’ll be part of how we go forward as well.
Q: What’s your relationship like with Barack Obama at this point?
Pelosi: Excellent, I think. You’d have to ask him.
Q: Did you think it’s warranted or understandable at all, the criticism that some of your members put upon him?
Pelosi: I haven’t heard that much from my members — I think mostly the Senate, I think. Let me say this: A long time ago, when I came to Congress, I was so excited about the prospect of Bill Clinton becoming president after a couple terms, and some of the members here said to me, ‘When you have your own party in the White House, they’re never going to do everything you want them to do, so don’t get your hopes up high that it’s going to be like you’re now in the White House. No, they’re in the White House.’
So there’s always, should we say, a high standard that we place there, and he’s been an excellent president. But he is the president, and none of us is. [LAUGHS] He was elected by the people in a very strong way. He was re-elected by the people. For members of the president’s own party to have some comment is a very natural thing. It’s been happening in the whole history of our country.
Q: Speaking of Clinton, what do you think of Hillary Clinton? Have you spoken to her recently about her 2016 aspirations?
Pelosi: Never about that, but I’m going to see her tonight.
Q: Oh you are?
Pelosi: I’m going to an event that she’s going to speak at.
Q: Oh, OK.
Pelosi: But I don’t think we’ll be talking about that because she has said — January, right, is when she? Sometime in January is when — she never said she would announce in January. She just said, I think, something to the effect of, ‘If a person were considering…’
Pelosi: Right, ‘not, theoretically before January.’
Q: Last time you didn’t put yourself into the fray.
I did Jerry Brown in ’76 and I was very young and that’s sort of what catapulted me to where I am now. Then the next time, all the sudden it was Dukakis and I mean, I haven’t endorsed anybody until I did endorse Richard Gephart in 2004. He is such a spectacular leader. And long, leader repeated over and over again at being the leader. And, as a matter of fact, we made a joke the other day and said even though he kept losing as Leader nobody asked him when he was leaving. And they asked me when I took us to victory and then we didn’t win. [INAUDIBLE] So maybe when you don’t win and you just stay and lose you will run for president.
But in any event, I thought he would make a fabulous president. And I guess that now even more so as one who has been through the idea of knowing all the issues and knowing the legislation from the standpoint of the leadership position. I thought he would make a great president.
But I haven’t, then the next time I was chair of the convention in ’08 and then of course through ’12 we had a President. So, um, no, I think would be very exciting if Hillary Clinton runs. For people in my district and in my state, I don’t know what they are gonna do if she doesn’t run.
They are so counting on a woman president. It would be a very exciting thing.
Q: So you can see yourself getting into the fray in this case …
Pelosi: Well, I don’t know about the fray, I’ve got fray of my own.
Pelosi: I’ve got my own fray.
Q: But in terms in coming out, you can see yourself maybe endorsing …
Pelosi: Let me say this about Hillary Clinton: When she runs, she will win. And when she wins she’ll go to the White House as one of the most prepared people in modern history to go there. She has the experience from the standpoint of her own experience in this administration as Secretary of State, as a United States Senator, front row seats as a First Lady — an active First Lady, First Lady of Arkansas establishing organizations to help children, which has been her passion. So I think from a state level, federal level, legislative level and administrative level she understands the territory and the American people.
Q: Can I ask one more question?
Off mic: A quick one.
Q: Going back to what we talked about in the beginning, the tax-package or looking forward next week to the ‘cromnibus’ or whatever we’re going to see, it’s never fun to see the government, you know, on the brink of collapse or whatever, but is it gratifying for you in every case where the Democrats can come together and rise to an occasion where Republicans cannot? Is it gratifying?
Pelosi: No, I would be more gratified if we could come to bipartisan agreement, find our common ground, which people send us here to do. When you can’t find it you stand your ground. But we are responsible. We are responsible people, we are a responsible party. We would never consider shutting down government. And that to me was something so remarkable that the Republicans allowed the government to be shut down for 17 days. When their proposal was one that we accepted, but they didn’t. They didn’t accept their own proposal.
Pelosi: And because they wanted to shut down government, cheered when they did, and only, what, 60 some members voted to open up government when the vote came down. … Only 87 of them voted to open [up government.]
144 of them voted against opening up government. 144 of them, Republicans, that’s remarkable. And it was their proposal. Their 800, 900 — that was their proposal. We didn’t even like the proposal. But we liked shutting down government less.
Q: But you might — you must like gloat a little — like sit back at the end of the day with a glass of wine and say, ‘Ah.’
Pelosi: Well I don’t drink alcohol.
Q: When you sit back with your chocolate and go, ‘Mmm, it’s good to be Nancy Pelosi.’
Pelosi: No, I would rather they did the responsible thing so we wouldn’t have to bail them out every time. And I’m still optimistic that in the negotiations over this omnibus that we can reach a place — Again, not the bill we would write, but we don’t have the majority — but a place that we can support and we can remove all doubt in the public’s mind that this is, that we don’t take this responsibility seriously.
We have leverage if they don’t have the votes. They have leverage because they know we will be responsible.
Q: Oh, I see.
Pelosi: And that allows them to be irresponsible to a certain extent.
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