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Nancy Pelosi's Secret Power Network

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Every successful politico is adept at deal-making and the use of powerful allies. It took the first female speaker in US history, however, to field a totally new political force: nuns.

Whatever the fate of the Democrats in the midterm elections, when history books judge the speakership of Nancy Pelosi, health-care reform will be chapter one. But few people outside of Pelosi's office know of the crucial power play that ensured its passage. Gail Russell Chaddock, The Christian Science Monitor's veteran congressional reporter, reveals Pelosi's tactical win in a deeply reported profile of the speakerhttp://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2010/0713/Nancy-Pelosi-puts-her-stamp-on-the-House.

It's a tale that underscores the ever-growing power of networks in an era when Facebook, with its 500-million-plus users, would be the world's third-biggest country. Everyone knows the difference between a social-network that has been built genuinely and over time and one that a marketer or tout tries to hammer together in a few minutes.

Pelosi's years of networking across many social and political strata paid off. She didn't just glad-hand with DC's power players in the run-up to the health-care vote. In a clutch moment, it was her connections with an extensive and historically under-powered group that enabled her to achieve her goals.

Shaken by the election of Scott Brown to fill the shoes of Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wanted to break up the health-care bill and pass only those elements that could clear the Senate. Pelosi, alone among top congressional leaders, opposed that approach. She wanted the whole package. The Pelosi strategy, however, required weeks of intra-party maneuvering and ultimately an end-run on the powerful Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The story behind the story is how a group of Catholic women that Pelsoi had cultivated over the years boldly countered the bishops and neutralized the opposition of staunchly anti-abortion Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and his allies.

When she took over as speaker in 2007, Pelosi -- famed for her careful cultivating of supporters, funders, and key interest groups -- began meeting weekly with Catholic women on social issues such as the uninsured, child nutrition, immigration, and expanding health coverage to poor children. This was not just Capitol Hill expedience. Pelosi typically attends mass at least once a week and has maintained strong ties with Catholic community organizations throughout her career. She describes church teachings as central to her life.

Stupak's last-minute opposition to the health-care package on the grounds that the Senate bill did not contain strong enough language blocking public funding of abortions was a clear and present threat to Pelosi's Democratic majority in the House. The bishops backed Stupak and 40 members of Congress in their opposition to the bill. That looked like the death knell for Pelosi's all-in approach.

Pelosi's nuns had been watching. Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Simone Campbell, president of NETWORK, a social-justice lobby of Catholic churchwomen, knew that Stupak's fellow Catholics in Congress "needed assurance," Campbell said. They had been staying in close touch with the speaker's office.

They decided to break with the bishops, publicly stating that the Senate language did not, in fact, expand federal funding for abortion.

Stupak, looking back on the nuns' announcement, says the move stunned him. "We had never heard of these nuns before," he said. Deal Hudson, president of the Catholic Advocate, an anti-abortion advocacy group, said several members of the Stupak coalition "went over the other side explicitly saying they (were) moved by the nuns."

Anti-abortion opposition crumbled. Pelosi then got the White House to agree to an executive order clarifying that public money would not be used to fund abortions. That agreement, along with the public backing of the Catholic churchwomen, gave anti-abortion Democrats political cover and pushed the bill over the top.

The nuns' statement, says Hudson, "was a very powerful move at that moment in time." Whatever you think of her politics, Pelosi's tactical skill was to mobilize at just the right moment a network she had carefully built over the years.

History may mark that not just as the key to passage of the bill but as the moment a previously unknown network of Catholic women rose to political prominence.