“They Used To Cane Each Other and Have Duels”

Nancy Pelosi riffs on the debt deal, the nihilist GOP, and the fights Congress used to have.

Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sways and chatters, as animated as the other congressional leaders are stolid. She waves her bangle-adorned hands. She grins whenever she pauses to take a breath. Every question gets a minutes-long, ranging disquisition. This morning, sitting in a cream suit in her airy cream office in the Capitol, Pelosi spoke with a group of reporters for more than an hour about the current crummy economic situation and crummier Congress. She smiled. But that hardly hid her voluble frustration.

Her points were these: She is deeply dissatisfied with the debt deal and the deficit-reducing supercommittee it creates. She believes Republicans are essentially political nihilists, and she has plans to prevent them from winning again. And she is intensely focused on jobs and growth.

“Everybody who has looked at this issue said, ‘Do not make big cuts too soon, you will slow economic growth,’ ” she said, referring to the debt deal. “I also think passing something, to get it over with, to move on, was necessary. And compared to default, it is preferable.” She smiled. “That is my way of saying: I don’t think this was the best path we could have taken.”

A reporter brought up whether, with House Speaker John Boehner having trouble with his fractured caucus, Democrats might have wrangled a better deal. “A week ago, [Boehner] went to the dark side,” she said, her hand fading away from her dramatically.

She also waved off discussion about the construction of the new supercommittee, tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in savings. “It is a victory for [Republicans] if we spend a lot of time focusing on the who, what, when, where of this commission,” she said. But she admitted exasperation with it, noting that she had heard it described as a “characterization of food, but not at the beginning of the digestive process.”

When talking about how to defeat Republicans in 2012, Pelosi depicted them as chaotic and destructive.  “Why don’t they want to create jobs? Is it because they want the president to fail? I’m not going to go into that,” she said. Dismantling the “public sphere” is their endgame, and they will “use the engine of deficit reduction as an excuse to destroy” it, she warned. “We cannot let them do that.”

How might Democrats stop them from demanding more cuts in the next go-round, possibly in September when Congress needs to re-up the government’s funding? Maybe, just maybe, she seemed to imply, by allowing a shutdown. “Suffice it to say that you won’t see a repetition of what happened last week,” she said, “taking us to the last minute when they didn’t even have the votes, and then saying, ’You’ll be responsible for default.’ ”

She noted, “A default is a much more serious consequence than a shutdown of government for a few days.” And she added, “Expect us to be more visible in terms of what we say here and how we mobilize outside, so Republicans know the risk of taking us to the brink.”

The third big topic: jobs and growth. This morning’s discussion came at a queasy moment. Congress has averted immediate economic disaster by lifting the debt ceiling. But investors are fleeing stocks for the safety of bonds. Inflation expectations are withering. Virtually every indicator—industrial production, employment, consumer spending, business confidence—is flashing red. The markets are betting on another recession. If it hits, Washington will have no fiscal tools and few monetary tools to help jolt the country out of it.

She admitted the difficulty of trying to pass jobs legislation when Congress has refused any more spending and when Republicans prioritize preserving the richest Americans’ wealth. In a moment of introspection, she wondered out loud about how many homes, pieces of “museum-quality art,” or big yachts a person could possibly need. “I have concluded that some of these people want something that is intangible,” she said. “Immortality!” But she said she had plans in the works, citing at least four places for bipartisan compromise: infrastructure investment, nudging China on its currency manipulation, “incentivizing” the private sector, and clean energy.

She described herself as ready for that fight, for jobs and growth. Congress, she said, is always contentious. “They used to cane each other and have duels! The Speaker of the House Henry Clay was in at least one duel!”