Pelosi: ‘Make No Mistake: This Is the Biden Agenda’

A conversation with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi
Anna Moneymaker / Getty; The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here.

Nancy Pelosi is juggling a series of looming deadlines. House Democrats must avoid a government shutdown and federal default, and they need to reach a consensus on advancing President Biden’s agenda through two different bills. This week, Pelosi announced that she would move to vote on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Thursday, even as progressives vowed not to support it unless a $3.5 trillion spending bill also passes. But despite the bind that Democrats are in, the House Speaker is still confident that her party can meet the moment. “We have to find a common ground, build our consensus, and win the day,” Pelosi says.

During The Atlantic Festival on Tuesday, Pelosi spoke with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, about divisions within the Democratic Party, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and threats to American democracy. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I’m hoping that since we have a little bit of time we can talk about some deep things, but let’s talk about some issues of the moment. Can you give us the state of play, as of today, in terms of both the infrastructure bill and its apparent decoupling from the larger domestic-policy spending bill? Where do things stand with you?

Nancy Pelosi: Well, first, let me thank you again for the opportunity to chat. As I’ve said to you all before, when I was in high school, which is, you know, a while ago, I subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, as it was called then. I loved reading it. And one of the reasons that, in our school, we all had to subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly was because we wanted to be good writers, and we were told we couldn’t be good writers unless you read good writing. So it wasn’t only about the substance and what we learned, but it was also to learn by reading good writing. So thank you, The Atlantic, for being an inspiration for all these years.

Okay, this is a very eventful week. We have four things on our plate right now. As you know, the debt ceiling is a matter of a couple of weeks, but we want to address it as soon as possible. The shutdown of the government is a matter of days. That would be September 30th. The infrastructure bill has a September 30th deadline for highway authorization and the rest, and of course the Build Back Better Biden initiative. President Biden said that he was happy and pleased to work in a bipartisan way to find common ground on infrastructure. But he would not confine his vision for America to what could be achieved in that way. We had to again build back better, and that is the reconciliation deal.

In the course of that time, as you know, there were those who said that number was too high. So we’re waiting to see what an adjusted number would be. We hope that that will be imminent and that we can then take that legislation to the floor. It’s called legislating. We have to find a common ground, build our consensus, and win the day.

Goldberg: Well let me ask you a question about the legislating. You have said or suggested that a lot of what’s going on—the drama between Senators [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema on the one hand, and the Progressive Caucus in the House, the Squad—is kind of the kabuki of legislating, and that it’s all going to work out in the end. But there is a lot of anxiety on the Hill that this is too unwieldy, that you’re not going to be able to rein this in and get most of what you want. How confident are you that you’re going to end up with, if not $3.5 trillion in domestic spending, something that’s fairly revolutionary, something that’s as dramatic as you want?

Watch: Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg in conversation with Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi: Well, the president’s number is what we built our bill around. It isn’t the last bill we will ever pass. There are some adjustments we can make in timing, length of program, and the rest. The president said it perfectly. He said, what’s the top line? Zero, because it’s all paid for. This is about creating good-paying jobs. It’s about lowering costs for families. It’s about tax breaks for the middle class. And it is all paid for. How do we, if we have to, come down? It’s not about a number. It’s about the values. What would you cut? Would you cut child care, child tax credit, family medical leave, universal pre-K, home health care? You could cut investments in protecting the planet—which is a health, jobs, security, and moral issue.

It’s not if we just take what it is, then we arrive at a number. But it isn’t starting with the number and starting cutting. It’s about building back better.

And let me just say: I think it’s, with all the respect in the world for the reporting on this, I think that there has been an appetite for saying there’s big division in the Democratic Party. There isn’t—I’ve never seen our caucus so organized, so unified. And I say that with a long history of, shall we say, trying to make sure we had the vote on something, over 95 percent of our caucus is fully behind, and that’s the moderates in the party, the New Democrats, the rest—they share these values as we go forward. Somehow or other, it’s been decided to make this a thing about moderates—and the moderates are overwhelmingly in support of President Biden in this legislation, as well as the progressives. So it may be fun to have that be kind of a thing, but that’s not what’s happening in our party. I’m so proud of our members, because they understand what is at stake and what we have to get done.

Goldberg: Well let me just stay on that point you made earlier that it’s all paid for. I mean, obviously, you believe that. Equally obviously, some of your moderates—Senators Manchin and Sinema—don’t necessarily believe that. And obviously you have no margin right now in the House—you’ve got to hold that entire caucus together. How do you convince them?

Pelosi: Well this is not even subjective. This is an objective fact. Leader [Chuck] Schumer and I met with Secretary [Janet] Yellen, Secretary of Treasury, the other day to agree on a framework of revenues that we could pull in. Now, it depends on the number. If the number is lower, then we deal with it one way. But the fact is, this is it. Some of the people out there—I’m not talking about members—some of the people out there are saying, “Oh, it’s too big.” Then we say, “We’re shrinking it, and it’s paid for.” When we say it’s paid for, you’d think they’d say “Glory, hallelujah.” And they say, “Oh my God, you’re going to raise my taxes.” No: We’re going to have people pay their fair share. So this isn’t even subjective, with all due respect to your question. It is objective fact. This will be paid for, and it is really exciting. That’s why the president said the top line is zero: because it’s paid for. And any arguments about inflation, or this or that, are dispelled by the fact that it is paid for. So some people say, “Well, I don’t want a number so high because I don’t want to tax this that or the other thing,” but that’s a different argument. The fact is the tax possibilities are there, whether people want to pay a tax, increase the corporate rate or capital gains or tax the high-end individuals. Just their share: not punitive. And of course, also to have the IRS be able to collect taxes that are illegally being avoided. It’s a big number: hundreds of billions of dollars.

Goldberg: We, the media, we tend to in this instance, and probably in other instances, spend more time thinking about the number than what’s in the package. And I want to get to that. But can I enter that question by putting this idea to you: That, in fact, the progressives have already won, because the argument is about a number and not the nature of the programs that are being discussed? Do you feel like the progressive wing is fully ascendant?

Pelosi: You may ask that question, but this is President Biden’s vision. This is his agenda, which is fully supported by House Democrats across the board.

Goldberg: So maybe the question is: Are you surprised that Joe Biden has become a progressive after spending three and a half decades as a moderate?

Pelosi: Well, as I said: In our caucus, when you divide nine people versus the 210 people, our caucus is very united. We’re very respectful of everybody’s views because we’re a big tent, and we respect that. But this is his agenda that is receiving big support across the board. The fact that the press want to play this as Democrats versus moderates—no, the moderates in the Congress overwhelmingly support this. So this is about Joe Biden. And I appreciate the articulate and eloquent presentations of what’s in the bill by some on our progressive side—I consider myself there, representing San Francisco as I do proudly in the Congress. But make no mistake: This is the Biden agenda. Clearly this is something that is a consensus within our caucus, following the lead of a president of the United States. What is fantastic is that we have this—now people compare him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That, oh my gosh, this is comparable to the New Deal. President Roosevelt had 319 Democrats in the Congress when he put forth his agenda. Not that it wasn’t transformational—but this is transformational, too, with a smaller margin.

Goldberg: Do you think that this is the equivalent of a New Deal if this goes through this week or later on? Is it as dramatic as that?

Pelosi: Of course the New Deal was dealing with such a depression in our country that there were so many things that went into it. But in terms of being transformational—this takes leverage to the people, children, poor people, people with disabilities, women. And so not in terms of size, or number of agencies established, or some of that, but in terms of changing the dynamic, building up rather than trickling down, spreading from the middle—rather than again enhancing the high end. And it is time. It is as needed now as what was needed then, because we were on a path of such incredible economic disparity in our country that led to a caste system. The wealthy—now, again, this is not to not appreciate the success and achievement of those, but they have to pay their fair share.

Goldberg: I want to come to the small subject of the future of American democracy in a moment. But I wanted to pivot to a couple of national-security and foreign-policy questions. We’re seeing reports today that 220 female Afghan judges have gone into hiding for fear of the Taliban. We see universities in Afghanistan banning women. Give us your view, a few weeks out of the Afghanistan withdrawal, of the way it was done and its impact on women.

Pelosi: Well, the impact on women in Afghanistan is probably one of the reasons that there was public support for us staying there so long. I think that President Biden made the exact right decision. It was long overdue. We should have stayed longer in the beginning to get the job done, instead of going to Iraq. But that’s another conversation. We had to leave. The timing was established by President Trump. Don’t forget, 120,000 people evacuated, not just us, but working with our allies. Sadly, we lost 13 of our military who were patriotically trying to get them out. Could that have been done better? Yes. And now it continues to be done better. The fate of women in Afghanistan—I’ve been there many times. Mothers’ Day, to visit mothers across the country: in our military and in their community. I wear this ring, which is made by Afghan women. I have many mementos from them, about them. And what they had made. Their fate was something that was very important to all of us. And I visit them. Not just judges and the rest in Kabul—and that’s very important judges, professionals, heads of universities, doctors, etc.—but the poorest of the poor in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. And to see those girls go to school—I mean, we did something very transformative, and for 20 years they benefited from that. And we have to keep our eyes [on Afghanistan]. The fate of the women is important to the fate of Afghanistan.

Goldberg: So what should we be doing for the women who we told life would get better? What should we be doing? What do we owe those women now?

Pelosi: It did get better. There’s no turning back on the education of those girls and the rest. But we have to keep a bright, shining light on Afghanistan and the Taliban, so that they know we’re watching what’s happening with that. And that if there are things that they need—they will need cooperation internationally—that it is contingent on how women are treated. It’s a very dangerous situation. There’s no question. There’s no minimizing. But we have to use a possibility that we have for the women of Afghanistan. That’s why it’s important to pass that continuing resolution to keep the government open: of course to meet the needs of those affected by Hurricane Ida, but also a significant resource to help the transition of Afghans into our society.

Goldberg: One other foreign-policy question. Last week, there was a little bit of an eruption around the funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile system. And there are a lot of people who are arguing that, well, even though it passed, this is further proof that the Democratic Party is moving away from support for Israel. Can you take a minute to frame out that discussion within your caucus?

Pelosi: First of all, I totally disagree with your characterization—not yours, but that you referenced. It’s a Republican tactic. The support for Israel has been and will always be bipartisan. Some of our members do not support the Iron Dome here. It’s going to be in our bill. It’s already in our appropriations bill, which passed in Congress. Just because some members didn’t vote for that doesn’t mean they don’t support our relationship with Israel. Just take that out of the equation. It’s a Republican tactic. It is bipartisan and will continue to be bipartisan. And again, it’s in our larger appropriations bill. The argument was really: “Do we need to move this up sooner?” When they might not even be ready until later.

I’ll talk to you about my credentials on Israel. My father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., speaking on the floor of the House when he was a New Deal Democrat, criticized the administration for not doing enough for Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust, saying that this information was known by the administration in the archives of the State Department. He worshipped at the shrine of Franklin Roosevelt, but he disagreed that the administration wasn’t moving quickly enough to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. So I come to this in the DNA, and I resent any characterization about what the Democrats are when it comes to Israel. It’s in our national interest to support Israel. It’s in our value system to do so, as well.

Goldberg: Let me go to this question about democracy, if I can. We’ll end on this. But it seems as if we’ve entered, possibly, a new phase in American history in which one of the two major parties no longer is predisposed to accept the verdict of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. Are you worried, come 2024, that if a Democrat were to win fair and square, that the Republicans will simply not accept that outcome? I mean—if you could, this is a hard question in a way—what is your biggest anxiety about that: what I would call the decomposition of democratic norms and standards?

Pelosi: Well, thank you for your question, Jeff, and your concern and characterization of it. Here’s the thing. On January 6, there was an assault on the Capitol—a day fraught with meaning in terms of the Constitution, because that’s the day we accept the numbers of the Electoral College. So that’s why they came. They assaulted the Capitol: the symbol of democracy to the world. They assaulted the Constitution. They assaulted our democracy. It was horrible. So now we can hold a presentation about that. But every single day since, they continue to try to undermine our democracy with legislation across the country to suppress the vote, to nullify the vote. And we cannot let that happen. I say to my Republican friends: “Take back your party. You are the Grand Old Party. You’ve done great things for our country.” I’ve said that in presentations before. “Do not be hijacked by a cult that is now not just a difference of opinion or policy or governance or science, but is undermining the sanctity of the vote, which is fundamental to our democracy.” So we have to pass legislation to nullify those voting-suppression bills across the country. We have to do so soon. We have the legislation in the Senate, but we also have to win in the courts. And we have to win in the court of public opinion. People have to know our democracy is at stake. This is no fearmongering. This is an actual fact. And again, it’s a situation where for one person in denial about the election result, if you go down that path, you are going to autocracy. We must protect and defend. At the beginning of our country—and Jamie Raskin’s always proud of quoting Thomas Paine—Thomas Paine said, “The times have found us.” Times found us to win independence, to fight a war, to win it, and to write our documents. Thank God they made amendments. Times found them to establish this great country. Times found Lincoln to preserve the unity of the country. And he did so. Times have found us to preserve it. Not that we place ourselves in a category of greatness, like Lincoln and our Founders—but the urgency of the assault on our democracy is real, and we must prevail. And again, we fight them every step of the way. And again, it makes politics seem almost trivial here. This next election is not just about Democrats or Republicans, or “Do you believe in climate change or not?” This is about “Do you believe in our democracy or not?” If they ever got the gavels, what they would do to our democracy is crushing. And we see it every day here. A lot of Republicans across the country—although they mistrust the results of the election, they believe a president when he says something. But that president—what’s his name—was not worthy of the trust the people placed in him because he is undermining our democracy in a way that caused death, damage, trauma, so much. And that’s important, but nothing as important as our democracy. We take the oath to protect and defend the Constitution.