WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When the next U.S. president moves into the White House on January 20, 2009, he shouldn’t be surprised to get a call from Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill with a list of legislative demands.
“End the (Iraq) war, expand health care, create jobs through innovation, rebuild infrastructure and ensure our energy independence.” In that order.
Those are the top five priorities for next year as laid out by Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives and a California Democrat, in an interview with Reuters.
She would be in strong position to pursue that agenda, especially if her party makes gains in the House and Senate and fellow Democrat Barack Obama wins the presidency over Republican John McCain in the November 4 elections.
In a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where she was promoting her new book “Know Your Power, A Message to America’s Daughters,” Pelosi offered up a legislative recipe that in some ways is at odds with the latest public sentiment.
When progress finally is being made in Iraq, after a 5-1/2-year slog, Pelosi wants to kick off the Congress that convenes in January with votes to impose troop withdrawal deadlines that Republicans have been fighting tooth-and-nail.
As voters complain about ever-growing government programs, Pelosi says “we need trillions” in new money to invest in rebuilding roads, bridges, sewers and other disintegrating public works. But she is quick to say it should not be financed by the “central treasury” and she is considering a novel idea: creating a public-private “infrastructure development bank.”
With consumers demanding relief from high gasoline prices, Pelosi has snubbed Republican demands to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling in protected areas, calling the idea a “hoax.”
“Although people are desperate and want a reduced price, this (drilling) isn’t going to make this happen, no matter how unpopular it may be to hold that position. Nonetheless it is the right thing to do,” Pelosi said.
As Pelosi recounts in her book, her life has been one of getting ahead by questioning authority and seizing opportunity.
Now 68, she writes that it began at a young age in Baltimore when she declined her devout Roman Catholic mother’s suggestions that she become a nun. And it was on display in 1987, when as a new member of the House she ignored the advice of political elders and delivered her first speech in the chamber on what was then a taboo subject.
“I came to fight against AIDS,” she said of the disease that was sweeping through America’s homosexual community.
Twenty years later, Pelosi took up the House gavel after Republicans lost their majorities in Congress in the 2006 elections and her fellow Democrats anointed her speaker.
She wrote the book, she said, because “people would always ask me, especially young women, ‘How did you do this? How did you raise a family? How did you go from the kitchen to the Congress?’”
As the first female speaker of the House, it is a story the mother of five wants to publicize to girls now growing up.
Blunting accusations that Democrats are soft on security after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Pelosi said she has no interest in letting up on defense spending, despite speculation in Congress that the United States cannot maintain the military build-up that has been a hallmark of the Bush administration.
This year alone, Congress has given the Pentagon more than $643 billion.
“We’ve got to build our military capability second to none. It is there but we have to grow it, sustain that,” Pelosi said.
Doing so will allow U.S. forces to focus on dismantling militant bases in Afghanistan, she said, while rebuilding a military frayed by the Iraq war that she opposed from the start.
But it is the raging national debate on energy and global warming, exacerbated by soaring gas prices, that now presents Pelosi with one of her toughest challenges as speaker.
Republicans, sensing they have found an issue that is resonating with voters, have been battering Pelosi for blocking their oil drilling legislation — and some centrist Democrats are moving in their direction.
The debate threatens to fracture the Democratic Party and could put Pelosi at odds with a potential President Obama, who recently embraced some expansion of offshore drilling.
In a sharp tone, Pelosi, whose home state of California suffered a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, said: “Let me just say this. I’m not for it.”
Instead, she is pushing her own energy measures that she thinks will be quicker-acting while lowering emissions that contribute to global warming.
As a band of House Republicans staged a protest over inaction on oil drilling this week in the Capitol quieted by the summer recess, Pelosi shrugged it off.
“They’re doing what I call the war dance of the hand maidens of Big Oil,” she said.
With the offshore drilling ban set to expire on October 1, Pelosi said she will listen to arguments. But her opponents must “prove there’s a reason” for expanding drilling.
“I remind them,” she said, “the speaker sets the agenda for the House.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan