The first woman to become speaker leaves a legacy that will be difficult for her successors to equal.
WASHINGTON — With a popular Democratic president in the White House and big Democratic majorities in Congress, an emboldened Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009 pushed through a major climate change measure despite warnings of a political backlash.
“We passed transformational legislation which takes us into the future,” Ms. Pelosi exulted after the House narrowly approved legislation to cut emissions following her signature wheeling and dealing to corral reluctant Democrats.
It was a rare miscalculation. Her immediate future turned out to be in the minority as Democrats were crushed in the 2010 midterm elections by a public recoil to the climate bill, which died in the Senate, and a health care bill that was signed into law.
Ms. Pelosi refused to throw in the towel and step aside. She remained head of the defeated House Democrats and rose again in 2019 as a more pragmatic speaker, one who had learned from both her failures and successes and would preside over a period of remarkable legislative productivity. In the process, she sealed a legacy as the most powerful woman in American politics to date.
What can arguably be called the Pelosi era in Washington comes to a close at noon on Tuesday as Republicans assume control of the House and Ms. Pelosi finally retreats to the rank and file where, she insists, she does not intend to be a meddling mother-in-law offering unsolicited advice.
But her presence will be felt for years in the climate, health care, public works and social legislation she ushered through to signatures by two Democratic presidents, as well as the big moments of her tenure capped off by the electrifying invitation to Volodymyr Zelensky to address Congress just days before she lost the gavel.
The new leadership of both parties will find it daunting to try to match her performance and political reach, whatever their view of her policy agenda. Ms. Pelosi, the first female speaker, carved a singular path.
A New Congress Takes Shape
After the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats maintained control of the Senate while Republicans flipped the House.
- George Santos: The Republican congressman-elect from New York, who is under scrutiny for lies about his background, is set to be sworn in even as records, colleagues and friends divulge more about his past.
- Elise Stefanik: The New York congresswoman’s climb to MAGA stardom is a case study in the collapse of the old Republican establishment, but her rise may also be a cautionary tale.
- Retirements: While each legislative session always brings a round of retirements, the departure of experienced politicians this year is set to reverberate even more starkly in a divided Congress.
Her time in leadership was bracketed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, two seminal events that tested her abilities but also showed a willingness to rise above political differences at times of crisis.
In between was a war in Iraq that she opposed, a harrowing financial crisis that she helped curb, the rise of the Tea Party movement that unseated her, the Trump presidency that she combated with two impeachments, a pandemic that threw Congress and the nation into turmoil, and finally a triumphant legislative push during the first two years of President Biden’s term. While her goals were big, she also devoted herself to — and appeared to relish — the minutiae of vote counting, picking off Democrats one by one until she reached the magic number of 218, usually with a few more tucked away in her purse just in case.
“The fact of the matter is no other speaker in the modern era, Republican or Democrat, has wielded the gavel with such authority or such consistent results,” John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who dueled with Ms. Pelosi in his roles as minority leader and speaker, said during the dedication of her official portrait last month. “Let me just say you are one tough cookie.”
And a partisan one. As the House faced a perilous vote on a bank bailout while the economy teetered in September 2008, Ms. Pelosi coupled her appeal for passage of the legislation with an assault on Republican economic policies that caused the crisis. Some Republicans cited the tone of her attack as their excuse for opposing the package, an outcome that sent financial markets reeling when their party failed to deliver the promised votes and the bill went down.
Ms. Pelosi then led the Bush administration and members of both parties in Congress in regrouping and finding a bipartisan way out of the economic meltdown. Her role was captured during a now-famous moment in the West Wing of the White House, when the Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, got down on bended knee pleading for Ms. Pelosi’s help.
“Hank, I didn’t know you were Catholic,” Ms. Pelosi, a devout member of that faith, dryly told the beseeching Mr. Paulson.
But it is the approval of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 that Ms. Pelosi regards as her greatest accomplishment, one that required all the legislative skill she could muster. In the end, she had to persuade House Democrats to swallow a Senate bill that many found objectionable but could not change after Senate Democrats lost their crucial 60th vote with the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. It required navigating the diverse objections of both conservative and progressive Democrats to deliver the win.
“Nothing in any of the years that I was there compares to the Affordable Care Act, expanding health care to tens of millions more Americans, 150 million families having better benefits, lower costs and no pre-existing condition risking their access, and no lifetime limits,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters in December, adding a point of particular pride to her, a mother of five: “Being a woman no longer a pre-existing condition.”
The win was costly as Ms. Pelosi became the target of harsh Republican political hits that continue to this day and contributed to a violent attack on her husband, Paul, in October. Democrats fell deep into the minority. Republicans were able to put the brakes on the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration even as he was re-elected in 2012 before turning the White House over to Donald J. Trump — or “what’s his name,” as Ms. Pelosi sometimes disparages the man who referred to her as “Crazy Nancy.”
Though she had a challenge to her return as speaker after Democrats won back the House in 2018, Ms. Pelosi solidified power again, aided by her fierce and public pushback to Mr. Trump.
From their first encounter, Ms. Pelosi showed that she would not humor Mr. Trump as so many others did. When he falsely claimed to have won the popular vote during his initial meeting with congressional leaders at the White House in January 2017, she pointedly corrected him on the matter. At another meeting, a photograph showed her pointing her finger at him, castigating him for his sympathy to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and telling Mr. Trump that “with him, all roads lead to Putin.”
Her sarcastic clap at Mr. Trump during his 2019 State of the Union address has become an iconic image, and her decision to rip up his printed remarks at the conclusion of the same speech a year later surpassed even that rebuke.
“He lied on every single page,” Ms. Pelosi said in a recent interview, explaining her spontaneous decision to shred the speech. She said she had seen the address as disrespectful to the House of Representatives, particularly after Mr. Trump used the occasion to present an honor to Rush Limbaugh, whom Ms. Pelosi labeled a “thug.”
“Don’t come here with your trash and your trash talk,” Ms. Pelosi said, describing her thoughts at that time.
In her second go-round as speaker, a challenge came from the left as younger, more progressive Democrats saw Ms. Pelosi as reluctant to push the legislative envelope when they floated the Green New Deal, an expansive environmental plan that Ms. Pelosi at one point brushed off as the “green dream.” The more pragmatic Nancy Pelosi was not ready to go there, using her own credentials as a card-carrying San Francisco liberal to draw a line.
At an October fund-raising reception in Detroit, Ms. Pelosi told donors that while she appreciated the enthusiasm of the new members and even shared their progressive views, it was not a “winning message.”
“I had those signs in my basement from 30 years ago,” she said. “But it isn’t what we’re doing right now.”
Faced with a stalemate in 2021, Ms. Pelosi agreed to separate a huge tax and climate change package from a bipartisan public works bill that progressives were threatening to hold hostage. The infrastructure measure passed and proved to be a political winner, but some of the social programs and tax benefits sought by Democrats in the failed companion were never resurrected.
In her final months as speaker, she oversaw a rush of bipartisan legislation that, while falling short of what she and other House Democrats would have preferred, represented real accomplishment: the biggest climate change measure ever enacted, an unexpected gun safety bill, microchip manufacturing legislation, new provisions to lower drug costs for older Americans and a huge spending package that included money for Ukraine to carry out its war against Russian aggression. Finally, there was legislative protection for same-sex marriage, which Ms. Pelosi said was a fitting capstone to her career in Congress, where her first speech after winning a special election in 1987 was a call to combat AIDS.
There was one last bit of business for a leader who often performed her weightiest tasks with no time to spare. With just days remaining as speaker, she leveled a final barrage at Mr. Trump. First, the special Jan. 6 committee she created ended its review by referring the former president to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution and releasing reams of testimony showing Mr. Trump’s determination to overturn the 2020 election he lost. Then, on Friday, the Democratic-led Ways and Means Committee released income tax returns that Mr. Trump had fought to keep secret.
Nancy Pelosi exercised power until the very end.