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Old girls network? Pelosi rallies congresswomen on healthcare

Montana Republican Jeanette Rankin, first female member of Congress, on the House floor in 1917

Ever since 1917, when Montana Republican Jeanette Rankin came to Congress, the number of women on Capitol Hill has been growing. These days, 78 women serve as members of Congress -- an all-time high. All but 17 of them are Democrats.

One of them is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A product of San Francisco's special brand of politics -- polite but with elbows -- she has shown a brilliant affinity for counting votes. In Washington parlance, it's called "whipping," as in whipping recalcitrant votes into line.

No issue has tested her as much as the current battle over President Obama's healthcare reform -- a thicket of progressive moral passion and fierce corporate lobbying, topped by a wave of tea-party anger. It will define them both -- and could end their hold on power.

So Pelosi on Wednesday is calling the Democratic women of the 111th Congress to her office, presumably to talk up the gender discrimination in the healthcare system and to call for gender solidarity to end it. Also, of course, to lobby the wavering.

On abortion, Ohio's Marcy Kaptur  may be a prime target. The Toledo Democrat voted for the healthcare bill in November when it contained an amendment banning use of federal funds for abortion. But now, without that language, her vote is in the "maybe" column.

On immigration, New York's Nydia Velázquez, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has already been in talks with Pelosi about how to provide for humane medical treatment of illegal immigrants.

In the balance is not just a reformed healthcare system, but an issue for both Democrats and Republicans in the fall. Will the girls network -- unthinkable a century ago -- make the difference?

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Jeanette Rankin speaking on the House floor. Credit: House of Representatives

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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