Nancy Pelosi strode confidently into a Capitol meeting room Thursday, papers in hand and a get-to-work look of determination on her face. She had just finished decisive negotiations to ensure she had the votes in her Democratic caucus to return as House speaker when the 116th Congress begins in January. It was harder this time than when the California representative became speaker in 2007, as the veteran lawmaker this month faced opposition from some younger members who wanted a fresh face or new image for the party. But Pelosi had done it – agreeing to stay in the job four years, unless there was overwhelming support for her to remain further – and this time, the prize was even bigger than when she made history by becoming the first female speaker a decade ago.
Pelosi, as leader of the opposition party, arguably will become the most powerful person in the country.
Not only will Pelosi head the House chamber that is expected to investigate President Trump and possibly impeach him, but she can thwart the president's legislative wish list as well, experts note. Even before she had tied down the final votes she needs to become speaker, Pelosi was adamant to Trump in an extraordinary, combative public negotiating session Tuesday that he would not get the border wall he had promised during his campaign.
She never said it out loud, but the implication was clear: Pelosi might be ascending to a third-ranking post – behind the president and vice president – but she holds much of his fate in her well-manicured hands.
"She's not only [about to be] the most powerful person in the country, but she's exactly the right person to be in this role at this time," says political strategist Les Francis, who has known Pelosi since the mid-1970s. "She's smarter than Trump. She's tougher than Trump. We saw that the other day in the Oval Office," Francis says.
Nancy Pelosi through the years
Nancy Pelosi through the years
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 8: File photo dated 08 May, 1996 shows US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, speaking during a Capitol Hill press conference in Washington, DC. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (R, D-MO) is expected to announce 07 November, 2002 that he will not seek another term after the Republican opponents took both the House of Representatives and the Senate in mid-term elections 05 November. One of two Democrats vying to fill the spot is is Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi; the other is chairman of the Democratic caucus Martin Frost (D, TX). (Photo credit should read J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: US President Bill Clinton signs the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act Amendments of 1996 20 May at the White House in Washington DC. Standing behind Clinton are (L-R) Jeanne White, mother of Ryan, White House Aide Patsy Fleming, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Rep. Henry Waxman(D-CA), Rep. Nancy Pelosi(D-CA). (Photo credit should read CHUCK KENNEDY/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS: Ranking member Nancy Pelosi ,D-Calif., during the House Appropriations,Foreign Operations subcommittee markup of FY 98 foreign operations appropriations. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
SLUG:NA/BAILOUT DATE:9/26/08 WASHINGTON, DC CREDIT: DOMINIC BRACCO II From left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) speak during a press conference about legislation for a bailout of the financial crisis on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, 2008. (Photo by Dominic Bracco Ii/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush is applauded by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (R) and Vice President Dick Cheney (L) as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington 23 January 2007. AFP PHOTO/Larry Downing/Pool (Photo credit should read LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: WHIP RACE--Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, victor in the Democratic Whip race, talks to reporters and celebrates with supporting members after the Democratic caucus elected her to replace outgoing Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., who is running for governor of Michigan. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,L) newly elected Democratic Minority Leader raises her hand with outgoing leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) 14 November, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Pelosi's election marks the first time in the history of the US Congress that a woman will lead her party. AFP PHOTO MIKE THEILER (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 26: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the California delegate breakfast in Boston, Massachusetts on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 26, 2004. (Photo by Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 02: STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS--House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., talk before President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Congressman John Lewis, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Harry Belafonte, Jessie Jackson and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (Photo by Moses Robinson/WireImage)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 04: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) addresses the 2008 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Democratic U.S. presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) are scheduled to speak to the same event. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 22: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 22, 2009 in Washington, DC. Pelosi turned the news conference into an opportunity to list what she and the Democratic House leadership considered their successes of the 111th Congress' first session. She took a handful of questions about her upcomming trip to China and her statements about the CIA. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 23: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, right, and Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, shakes hands while addressing the media before a meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2009. Maliki pledged to mend sectarian divisions and fight corruption as he urged the international community to continue providing support to his nation. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC- Jan. 05: House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, accepts the gavel from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the 112th Congress convenes at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) works with staff before a vote on the House floor during a typically busy day on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Thursday, June 23, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES â DECEMBER 1: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly on camera news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 22: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi attends the Public Counsel's 2012 William O. Douglas Dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 22, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05: House Minority Leader Sen. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waves as she takes the stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media as female House Democrats gather around during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, on November 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Leader Pelosi said that she has decided continue to lead the House Democrats and does not wish to retire at this time. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, bottom center, stands for a photograph with Democratic women of the House on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. 65 House Democratic women are part of the 114th Congress, the largest number of women in a party Caucus in the history of the Congress of the United States. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 07: (L-R) Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, Apple's SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, CEO of Apple Tim Cook, music producer Jimmy Iovine and Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi attend the Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute to Industry Icons honoring Martin Bandier at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leave a meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center where Biden briefed members on the nuclear deal with Iran, July 15, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., introduces presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton to the press for her on the Iran nuclear deal following her meeting with House Democrats during their weekly caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works with staff in her House Leadership office during a typically hectic legislative day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday May 18, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) walks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after attending a meeting with the House Democratic Caucus on June 22, 2016 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 28: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), chats with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), during a memorial service to honor the late Rep. Mark Takai (D-HI), 49, who died from pancreatic cancer last July, at the US Capitol September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: (L-R) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) drive nails into a piece of lumber at the 'First Nail Ceremony' September 21, 2016 outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The ceremony marked the official launch of construction on the Inaugural platform where the next President of the United States will take the oath of office on Friday, January 20, 2017. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 22: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol September 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. Pelosi answered questions on a range of topics, including congressional negotiations on a new continuing resolution. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, following a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. During their closed-door meeting, Pelosi expressed strong concerns about Trump's decision to name former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist, and asked him to reconsider the appointment. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg
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Speakers have had reduced power in recent years in their own caucuses. Parties now have less control over which candidates were fielded for office, making freshman members less nervous about challenging leadership. The elimination of earmarks – federal money dedicated to specific local projects – deprives speakers of a tool to corral lawmakers. Intraparty divisions, such as the conservative Freedom Caucus's feuds with more establishment Republicans, have also limited the ability of leaders to keep their members in line.
Pelosi, however, has a more united caucus and will have a kind of power over Trump, who will need Democrats to approve parts of his agenda on the Hill and who has been weakened by the special prosecutor's inquiries.
"Nothing can come through the House without her involvement, which puts her in an incredibly powerful position," says James Curry, a former Hill staffer and political science professor at the University of Utah, where he specializes in Congress and the legislative process. "Major policy is largely done at the leadership table. She's going to be in on every single major policy meeting and then come back to her party with a take-it-or-leave-it offer."
And it's not just the job, experts say – it's Pelosi herself. While some of the younger members chafed at reinstalling the 78-year-old lawmaker to the top leadership job, Pelosi, Hill-watchers say, showed why her extensive experience negotiating with presidents matters.
"She has the political force of character, and she has the temperament and the strategic instincts that come with being very experienced in the Democratic Party leadership," says Wendy Schiller, chairwoman of the political science department at Brown University and a former Senate staffer. "She knows how to play the short game and the long game."
Part of that, experts say, is that Pelosi has a very canny sense of when to pull the trigger on investigations or impeachment and when to focus on policy issues directed at the middle class. When George W. Bush was president, for example, Pelosi rejected demands from the left that the Democrats impeach Bush over the war in Iraq, aware that the effort could provoke a backlash.
"In some ways, the biggest problem for Trump is that Pelosi is very savvy when it comes to whether to pursue investigating versus legislating," says Matthew Green, a Catholic University political science professor and co-author, with Douglas Harris, of the upcoming book, "Choosing the Leader: Leadership Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives."
Addressing reporters on Thursday, Pelosi downplayed any plans for dragging Trump administration officials before the House to testify – a scene that has many rank-and-file Democrats salivating in anticipation. Instead, the presumptive next speaker ticked off two items she said the House Democrats could work on with Trump – lowering prescription drug prices and building infrastructure – and said the House would move onto other issues, such as preventing gun violence, strengthening the Voting Rights Act and protecting young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
And instead of casting Trump as corrupt, Pelosi continued with a line she expressed during the meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer – that Trump simply isn't in touch with reality.
Trump, she noted, was ready to shut down the government and take the blame for it.
"Perhaps he doesn't understand people need their paychecks. That's not the life he leads," she said. Pressed about whether the impasse over the budget would indeed lead to a shutdown, Pelosi looked baffled at the president's pronouncements.
"He doesn't know that much about what it means to shut [the government] down," she said. As for Trump's insistence that Mexico would, in fact, pay for his border wall, through the economic impact of the pending new trade deal among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, Pelosi shook her head.
"It doesn't make sense. Does that sound familiar to you?" Pelosi said. First of all, she said, the trade deal isn't even finalized. And, secondly, any economic benefit would be just that – a trade benefit for the country's consumers and businesses – and not a kind of Mexican payment for a wall.
"I think the Oval Office is an evidence-free zone," Pelosi said.
Incoming House committee heads are signaling that they indeed will investigate the Trump administration: Intelligence is expected to look into the Trump family's connections to Saudi Arabia, Ways and Means will likely seek Trump's tax returns, and the Judiciary Committee is expected to take an ever broader look at the embattled administration.
None will result in impeachment proceedings without Pelosi's OK – and experts say she will only give the go-ahead if the political climate is right. But Trump must now look to Nancy Pelosi to see his future.
"I did tell the president I pray for him," Pelosi said. He may need it.