Washington • Incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to be clear about what the new Democratic House majority will not be: They will not, she insists, act like the Republicans.
“We believe that we will not become them,” she said in a New Year’s Day phone interview during a visit to her native Baltimore. "We’re not going to do to them what they did to President Obama. ... It’s really important for us not to become them and certainly not to become like the president of the United States in terms of how he speaks without any basis of fact, evidence, data or truth.
"We will respect each other's opinions, and respect the truth." Note: She said this before President Trump's series of false claims in advance of his Wednesday meeting with Congressional leaders about the government shutdown he precipitated in pursuit of his border wall.
Pelosi also pushes back hard against the idea that in holding Trump and his administration accountable, Democrats will be engaging in some sort of investigative orgy. On the contrary, she said, Article I of the Constitution grants Congress responsibility for "oversight over the agencies of government."
She adds pointedly: "We don't want the administration describing the traditional congressional responsibility for oversight to be labeled 'investigation.' There may be some investigations that spring from another purpose, but we will be strategic and not political when it comes to that." She senses no need to explain or elaborate on the meaning of the words "another purpose," even though they represent a potentially mortal threat to Trump's presidency.
The Democrats' assumption of power in the House this week will alter American politics in ways that go well beyond their capacity to make life miserable for the president and his lieutenants.
While the two dozen or so potential presidential candidates will be cast as the ultimate arbiters of what Democrats will choose to stand for in 2020, the agenda Pelosi and her colleagues put forward could play an unusually large role in shaping how the nation sees the alternatives to Trumpism. If Trump has a way of making sure that the bulk of political news emanates from Washington, his newly powerful opponents in the House can turn this to their advantage.
The woman who will return as speaker after an eight-year absence sounded almost gleeful in discussing the planks in the House platform. She was characteristically disciplined in sticking to the issues that helped elect the ideologically diverse group of 63 new Democratic members who gave her the opportunity to wield the gavel.
At the top of the list is a sweeping political reform package linked to a new Voting Rights Act. Taking on the "special interests," she said, will "give people confidence" in the rest of the Democratic wish list that includes health care (with a focus on prescription drug prices and protecting people with pre-existing conditions), workforce training, and "building the infrastructure of America in a green way."
For the longer term, Democrats would be looking for ways to expand health coverage by strengthening the Affordable Care Act. She argued — optimistically — that the range of viewpoints within her party over exactly how to do this would create “a lively and positive discussion” of the practical questions: “What are the benefits? How is it paid for? What is the impact on the individual? What is the impact on the delivery of care?”
The House's first order of business is not where she expected to start: the imperative of reopening the government. The House plans to pass a series of spending bills that have already been approved by the Republican Senate. A separate bill would extend existing funding for the Department of Homeland Security (where any money for a wall-like thing would reside) to allow a month of negotiation.
"If they reject this," she says of the prospect that Senate Republicans will reject their own bills, "it would be highly irresponsible, and it would be a manifestation of the president of the United States making fools of them."
Republican senators, of course, may prefer that to being attacked by Trump. This is what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) suggested Wednesday in saying he'd reject any House bills that Trump wouldn't sign. Still, her swipe reflected the tenacious approach to negotiating her supporters prize.
And then there's the other side of Pelosi, who insisted on ending our conversation by declaring, "We want America's heart to be full of love as we go forward."
A delightful thought. But for Trump, it will be tough love.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.”