LITTLE ROCK — Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, touted Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and hailed approval of federal health care reform during her tenure as House speaker during an appearance here Thursday.
The California congresswoman, now the House minority leader, also questioned the Keystone XL pipeline project in the wake of the recent ExxonMobil oil spill in Arkansas and suggested the U.S. may begin arming Syrian rebels in her speech to an appreciative audience as part of the distinguished lecture series of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
Pelosi said Hillary Clinton is the best qualified person to run for president in 2016.
“I pray that Hillary Clinton decides to run for president of the United States,” she said to loud applause. “Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that she is a woman. As a person, she will be the most qualified person to enter the White House in modern history.”
No one else can lay claim to having served as a first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state, Pelosi said.
If Clinton were president, “think of the message it sends to women and the world: The most powerful figure in the world is a woman, and she also happens to be the best qualified for the job,” she said.
Pelosi spoke at the Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock a day ahead of a scheduled appearance by Bill and Hillary Clinton at a dedication ceremony at Little Rock’s recently renamed Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.
Pelosi has broken some glass ceilings herself: As House speaker from 2007 to 2011, she was the first, and to date only, woman to hold that position, which makes her the highest-ranking female politician in American history.
In 2010, Pelosi played a key role in congressional approval of the federal Affordable Care Act. Polls have consistently shown the law is unpopular in the state, and Pelosi has been a popular target for Arkansas politicians.
Pelosi said Thursday she was proud of her role in passing the law, which requires nearly everyone to obtain health insurance. The law is to take full effect next year.
Among the law’s provisions is an optional proposal that states expand their Medicaid rolls to include people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The Arkansas Legislature voted this year to enact an alternative form of expansion that uses federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for that population, an estimated 250,000 Arkansans.
The federal law “was controversial, mostly because it was made controversial by hundreds of millions of dollars being poured in to misrepresent what it was,” Pelosi said. “There was a special-interest commitment to the status quo that worked for the health insurance industry but really wasn’t working for individual families.”
David Ray, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said in an interview later that the party believes most Arkansans do not share Pelosi’s political views, particularly on the federal Affordable Care Act.
“We hope that while she’s here she will visit with folks who hold Arkansas values as opposed to the liberal San Francisco values that she tries to implement in Washington, D.C.,” Ray said. “She’s one of the architects of Obamacare, and that’s a view that’s not very widely agreed with here in Arkansas.”
State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb issued a news release Thursday pointing out that former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, now seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, voted for Pelosi as speaker four times.
“With that kind of judgment for speaker, we can’t wait to see what Mike Ross plans for Arkansas,” Webb said.
Pelosi briefly discussed the March 29 rupture of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower and the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
“I’m sorry about what happened here,” she said of the spill. She said she has not taken a position on the Keystone pipeline, but she has questions about its impact on the environment and supporters’s claims that it would reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
The oil “goes from Canada to the (Gulf Coast) refineries, to Asia, or points east or west, but it does not stay in the United States,” she said.
Discussing the possibility of military intervention in Syria, Pelosi said that so far the U.S. has provided only non-lethal aid to rebel forces, but “now I think we’re moving to a place where we will be providing more lethal aid to strengthen the hand of those who would want to see President Assad gone.”
Pelosi also predicted that comprehensive immigration reform will pass in this Congress, possibly before the year is out.
“It will protect our borders, it will hopefully unify families, it will provide a path for legalization and citizenship over time to many people,” she said.
Pelosi complained of the role money plays in contemporary politics, saying it is “suffocating the airwaves.”
She advocated for greater disclosure of the sources of campaign contributions, legislation to limit campaign contributions and a constitutional amendment reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions on elections.