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The End of the Nancy Pelosi Era?

Just months ago, Nancy Pelosi was being hailed as the most powerful woman ever in American politics, and one of the most successful speakers of the House in history. Now, with the Democratic House majority in jeopardy, her reign looks like it might be nearing an end.


Nancy Pelosi accepts the gavel from Minority Leader John Boehner during the first session of the 111th Congress in on January 6, 2009. If Republicans retake the House, Pelosi could be handing the gavel over to a Speaker Boehner in January 2011. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

What a difference a few months make.

Back in March, following the passage of health-care reform, Nancy Pelosi was being hailed as the most powerful woman ever in American politics, and one of the most powerful and successful speakers. The California Democrat was riding high after twisting arms and cutting deals to ensure the passage of the reform after several major legislative accomplishments, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program and a $787 billion stimulus package. Since then, she's added another notch in her belt with financial reform.

But her run looks like it could be ending soon. The Washington Post's Paul Kane and Karen Tumulty have a big story this morning about Democrats fleeing the speaker:

Democrats from a number of states, including Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, are running away from Pelosi in a harsh political climate. Distancing one's self from the speaker is nothing new for many Democrats, including [Rep. Chet] Edwards, but the number of incumbents criticizing the party House leader is larger than it has been in past election cycles—and the volume of their criticism is louder.

More than a few Democrats have said they are wavering on supporting Pelosi as their leader next year. At least four House Democrats are running ads stating their opposition to the speaker's agenda, and one Democrat running in Tennessee called for her resignation.

Rep. Edwards, a Texas Democrat, debuted an ad last week saying he had stood up to Pelosi and President Obama. While Edwards is hardly the first Dem to run away from Pelosi, he's a significant case: while some vulnerable freshman representatives in purple (or even red) districts are fleeing, Edwards is a 10-term congressman, which shows just how much danger Democrats are in, who was rumored as a vice presidential candidate 2008—by one Nancy Pelosi.

If Democrats lose the House, as seems increasingly likely (FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver gives them only a 37 percent chance at keeping their majority), it's likely to mean the end of Pelosi's power. Time's Jay Newton-Small reports she could hold on if the Republicans gain only a slim majority, but might not. Longer term, though, a minority-leader position would likely just be a soft landing. The last time a speaker lost power and then regained it was in the mid-1950s, when the legendary Democrat Sam Rayburn and Republican Joe Martin traded the seat back and forth—with Martin twice capturing the Speaker's gavel, only to relinquish it after two years.

The whole thing might seem a little unfair, though. If Pelosi does indeed get the boot, it may be punishment for the failings of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The House has consistently moved legislation, while Reid has in several cases been unable to overcome the objections of Republicans determined to block the Democratic agenda. That's caused some tension between the two chambers and their leaders, and Democrats seem to have a better chance of keeping the Senate than they do the House. On the other hand, while Pelosi might lose the Speaker's chair, Reid might not even be make it back to Washington come January.

If Democrats lose the House, the GOP's John Boehner will take the Speaker's chair. In this week's edition of NEWSWEEK, Andrew Romano and Daniel Stone argue the case for why Boehner could be a good Speaker.

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