Trying to sell a historic health bill to a balky caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told POLITICO in an interview that she wants to soften a proposed surcharge on the wealthy so that it applies only to families that make $1 million or more.
The change could help mollify the conservative Democrats who expect to have a tough time selling the package back home. Their support is the single biggest key to meeting the speaker's goal of having health care reform pass the House by the August recess.
The bill now moving through the House would raise taxes for individuals with annual adjusted gross incomes of $280,000, or families that make $350,000 or more.
"I'd like it to go higher than it is," Pelosi said Friday.
The speaker would like the trigger raised to $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for families, "so it's a millionaire's tax," she said. "When someone hears, '2,' they think, 'Oh, I could be there,' because they don't know the $280,000 is for one person.
"It sounds like you're in the neighborhood. So I just want to remove all doubt. You hear '$500,000 a year,' you think, 'My God, that's not me.'"
Pelosi also told POLITICO she will push to "drain" more savings from the medical industry - hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and health insurers - than they have given up under current health-reform agreements with the Senate and White House.
Asked whether she believes the industry players will wind up contributing more to the package, Pelosi replied: "I don't know. I know they can, to the extent that the special interests are willing to cooperate. ... They could do much better. ... Frankly, I think all the money [to pay for health reform] could be drained from the system, if they were willing to do that."
The speaker said she will try to wring more concessions, setting up a potential battle with health care players who torpedoed President Bill Clinton's health-reform efforts but have been eager participants in the negotiations this time around.
Pelosi said she is open to other changes - that she is taking an "agnostic" approach to getting a bill, rather than working from a "theology" of reform: "You have to just judge it for: Does it lower costs, improve quality?"
Pelosi now faces more pressure than she ever has in her career - obligated to repeatedly deliver tough votes for an ambitious and popular president, but anxious to minimize the midterm election losses that traditionally befall the party holding the White House.
The speaker professed bemusement at the persistent question she gets about whether it was better to be speaker with a Republican president or a Democratic president.
"Oh, please!" she replied. "Why do people ask that question? Do you have any idea? Like night and day. When people ask it, I think: Would you think that it would be easier to have a Republican president who doesn't share your values? No, no, no.
"Nothing is easy. It's challenging to get the job done and live up to the expectations and the hopes of the American people, as the president has taken them all to a new height. ... But ... it's like having a 1,000-ton anvil lifted off your shoulders.
"People would ask, 'Now, you're not going to be the No. 1.' And I say, 'This is what I've hoped, prayed, dreamed and worked for.' And it absolutely goes beyond my expectations of what it could be."
Some House members are concerned that they're being asked to take a tough vote that may be for nothing if the Senate doesn't follow through. Some Pelosi advisers had considered keeping the House in session into August so that leaders could be sure the Senate was going to vote before House members take therisk themselves.
But Pelosi is plunging ahead. "We're just staying on our own course, and we hope that the Senate will stay on a parallel course, to have this done by [early August]. Whatever it is, we will be ready. ... As I always say, we're going forward when we're ready. And I'm sure we'll be ready."
Pelosi said she has felt a certain "serenity" ever since she became speaker and says she's "ready for all of this." Ticking off the year's remarkable agenda, she praised the stamina of her members, chairs and leaders, calling the Democratic team a "partnership."
"I have the confidence when I go down a path that we are going down that path together," she said. "It is a heavy lift, sometimes. But it one based on respect for the members. So we'll take the time, have the conversations, do what needs to be done. ... It's such a tremendous honor to be speaker of the House. To be able to serve with Barack Obama is really a joy. He's a great leader ... with a vision, a strategic approach to it and the eloquence to take it to the American people."
Pelosi said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who has tight relationships throughout the House, is "doing an excellent job."
"He's great, and I knew he would be," she said. "The only thing is, I certainly would still like to have him here. There's no question about that. But I'm so proud of him. I take some level of pride in his success, having appointed him to the DCCC, only in his second term, and as a member of the Ways and Means Committee."
POLITICO spoke with Pelosi on Friday afternoon in her suite of offices on the West Front of the Capitol, overlooking the National Mall. She spoke proudly of that morning's two committee votes on health care, starting in the wee hours with the Ways and Means Committee and continuing after breakfast with the Education and Labor Committee.
"It's such a big day for us," she said. "I don't' think anybody would have ever thought that would be happening on schedule, the way it is. So it's pretty exciting. It's historic."
Her challenge now is to keep making history, against ever harsher odds. Despite the onus on her to turn President Barack Obama's promises into legislation, Pelosi is relishing the pinnacle of a lifetime in and around politics.
Now, she's arguably the second most powerful person in government, yet obliged to court fickle members, vote by vote. Some friends said the nail-biter vote for Obama's climate-change plan was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. But she said health care would probably be "the most exciting."
"Every single person in America is an expert on his or her health care," she said. "The differences among members are regional, they're generational, they're ethnic - concerns that are really not necessarily political, partisan. We want this to work for the country. So we have to listen to everybody.
Whatever the cause, police across the region are taking credit for the drop.
"Everybody wants to beat us up when it goes up, so we'll take credit for it when it goes down," D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.
She said police are able to target specific locations or types of crime and policing is so high-tech that investigators are analyzing crime minute-by-minute and have greater ability to attack crime before it happens.
In Prince George's, for example, the department's top commanders get mobile phone updates on crimes and 911 calls every 15 minutes.
In New York, when someone is killed, police send a mobile data center to a neighborhood, allowing police on the scene to listen to 911 calls and immediately search databases that list the names of everyone in a certain building who is on parole.
In the District, the department creates a weekly "Go-Go report," which details where and when home-grown bands are playing, because go-go concerts often bring together rival gangs, causing violence, Lanier said. There is also a weekly gang report that tells officers which gangs or crews are feuding that week.
Armed with that information, police can better predict where crimes might happen and take measures to prevent them.
The District is on track to have fewer killings than in any year since 1964, when the population was about 760,000 and Vietnam War protests were just beginning.
In the years since, the city has struggled at times with civil unrest, the arrival of crack cocaine and the rise of street gangs. In 1991, the District was known as the murder capital of the United States, recording 479 that year. This year, there have been 79.
Last summer, the city was struggling with so much violence in the Trinidad neighborhood that police set up military-style neighborhood roadblocks and stopped people from entering unless they had a "legitimate reason." The checkpoints were so restrictive that they were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
This year, there have been several high-profile shootings in the District, including last week's late-afternoon killing of armed suspect Kellen Anthony White by the Capitol Police about a block from the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Also, a security officer, Stephen T. Johns, was killed last month during the lunch hour at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. An alleged white supremacist has been charged.
But Lanier said there has been a turnaround in violence this year. She pointed to a better relationship between the department and the community as a factor, saying it has helped get more violent repeat offenders off the streets. She said tips from the community have been flowing faster than ever, due in part to patrol officers knowing their beats and developing connections in the community.
Last year, the department paid about $500,000 in reward money for tips that led to arrests and convictions, double the amount in 2007. This year, detectives have closed about 70 percent of homicide cases.
"The community is giving us more information than ever," Lanier said. "They're used to seeing the same cop in the neighborhood every day. They feel comfortable. They have a connection to that officer. They know that officer isn't going to burn them."
Burning them, she said, would be to take information and not act on it, leaving sources to believe police are corrupt or lazy.
She also said she has torn down walls in the department so that homicide detectives talk more often with beat officers, sharing vital information.
Violent crime is also down in some of Washington's other large suburbs, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
Montgomery has recorded six homicides this year, putting it on track to have its lowest total since 1986.
In Prince George's, violence had been steadily rising since the 1990s, when the county started absorbing spillover crime from the District. But this year, crime is at a 20-year low, and homicides are down almost 17 percent.
Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said that since he took over the department in September, there has been a more defined mission about how to attack crime.
He identified car thefts as one of the county's major problems and a "gateway" crime, meaning if criminals get away with stealing a car, they sometimes become emboldened and begin committing more daring acts. In 2004, about 18,500 cars were stolen in the county, more than in all of Virginia.
Since then, the department has focused on arresting car thieves and educating the public about protecting their cars, and the number of car thefts has shrunk by half.
"We have a very detailed and comprehensive strategy. We are triaging our community," Hylton said.
He said the homicide closure rate is about 70 percent, which has helped get many criminals off the streets.
"If you come into Prince George's County and you commit a murder, we're going to track you down and arrest you and lock you up," Hylton said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the drop in homicides this year is notable, especially considering the weather.
"This does come at an important time," he said. "We're midway through summer, and summer is when you see the most significant increase in street violence. Departments have had to be more strategic in terms of gangs and hot spots."
Wexler said that crime isn't down everywhere. Baltimore and Dallas are among some cities experiencing a higher number of killings compared with last year.
Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said it has taken police decades to figure out how to effectively target crime.
"In the '60s, crime was like an act of God, like a tornado or earthquake," LaFree said. "Where policing has changed is that we've gotten the idea this is a problem we created and there are human solutions to it. Obviously, crime is not randomly distributed. It is connected to hot spots in cities and other areas."
LaFree and others agree that crime doesn't automatically go up when the economy is poor. Property crime is also trending down in many jurisdictions, including the District, Prince George's and Montgomery. The FBI reported last week that bank robberies across the country fell in the first quarter of the year, with 1,498 reported, compared with 1,604 in the first quarter of 2008.
Criminologists point to the Great Depression in the 1930s as a time of relatively low crime compared with the Roaring Twenties, when the country experienced more violence.
Lanier said that despite the good news, there's not much celebrating going on among police chiefs across the country.
"We're afraid to relax in any way and say crime is down," she said. "We tend to not talk about it much because we know how quick things can turn. What's successful today, tomorrow can turn on a dime."
Staff writers Maria Glod, Tom Jackman, Dan Morse and Josh White contributed to this report.
By Mike Allen