First woman House speaker may be toppled
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to lead the U.S. House of Representatives by taking on the most powerful man on Earth -- then-President George W. Bush and his unpopular Iraq war.
Now, four years later, the California Democrat is likely to lose the House speakership because of Congress' inability -- and that of Bush's Democratic successor, Barack Obama -- to revive the ailing U.S. economy.
Polls show fewer than one in three Americans approve of Pelosi and Republicans are expected to win back control of the House from Democrats in Tuesday's elections mostly because of anger over the lack of jobs.
That would set the stage for Pelosi -- derided by critics as a free-spending liberal and praised by backers as a crusading trailblazer -- to surrender the speaker's gavel when a new Congress convenes in January.
It would close a roller-coaster reign as speaker by the former stay-at-home mother of five who did not run for Congress until her mid-40s and then rose to power as a prolific fund-raiser and tough organizer.
"Pelosi is in trouble because of the economy -- the anger, fear and loathing," said James Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
"Historically, she will go down as an important speaker -- one revered by the left and hated by the right."
Last December, Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history, was named as a runner up in Time magazine's annual Person of the Year competition.
Congressional scholars say Pelosi "consolidated more power than any other speaker in modern history," Time noted. She used it to help give Obama what scholars call one of the most successful legislative records of any modern U.S. president.
It includes passage of an $814 billion economic stimulus package, an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, a crackdown on Wall Street and the biggest change in a half century in college loans to redirect billions of dollars in savings to students.
But these triumphs -- many controversial and virtually all opposed by Republicans -- were overshadowed by fiscal woes.
And Republicans seeking to take back the House have tied House Democrats to the economy and their unpopular speaker.
Pelosi says Democrats did what needed to be done after years of Bush's big-spending, tax-cutting policies, blamed for helping push the U.S. into recession in late 2007.
"Let's continue to take America forward. We're not going back," Pelosi declared in a recent campaign speech.
In November 2006, with Pelosi leading the charge, Democrats won the House, ending 12 years of Republican rule. She was elected speaker by colleagues two months later.
"This is an historic moment for the Congress and for the women of this country," Pelosi said at the time. "It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years."
Having first learned politics as a child from her big-city mayor father, Baltimore's Thomas "Big Tommy" D'Alesandro, Pelosi quickly went to work.
In the House's first 100 hours, she won approval of bills to reduce the gap between rich and poor, including one to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade.
She also cranked up the pressure on Bush to change course in the Iraq war. But Bush, over Democratic objections, ordered a troop surge in 2007.
In August, Obama, who replaced Bush in January 2009, declared an end to the seven-year U.S. combat mission in Iraq and promised to focus on the economy.
But the U.S. jobless rate has remained stubbornly high, at 9.6 percent, keeping his party in political peril.
While Democrats may lose the House, Pelosi seems certain to be elected to a 13th term from California. If she is no longer speaker, however, she may resign from Congress.