America - Andrew Stephen on America's top women

Nancy Pelosi, who has reached the highest office ever achieved by a woman in US politics, is conside

This is how American politics works. The bill to create a department of homeland security sought by President Bush - and delayed because of his insistence that the new department's workers could not be members of unions - consisted of just 35 pages of legislation. But when the Republicans earlier this month won control of both congressional houses for the first time since 1952, the bill grew to 484 pages: the special interests lobbyists had moved in, getting various extra measures pushed through in the guise of security concerns. An example: one section of the bill limits legal liability for the makers of thimerosal, a mercury-based additive to vaccines sometimes said to cause autism in children. This is a triumph for the pharmaceutical giant Ely Lilly, which contributed $1.5m to congressional candidates for this month's elections.

I mention this because it demonstrates the sheer venality of American politics - and because in January, for the first time, a woman will have a chance to civilise it all when she moves into the congressional leadership. The former Democratic chief whip Nancy Pelosi, 62, will become the minority leader of the House of Representatives; in so doing, she will attain the highest office ever achieved by a woman in US politics. The Republicans relish the prospect because, as the country drifts rightward, Pelosi is usually described by what is increasingly a dirty epithet: she is a "liberal" who is in favour of - wait for it! - gun control, and against war in Iraq. Not only that: she is a "liberal" who since 1987 has represented California's 8th District of San Francisco, one that includes Haight-Ashbury, where at least a quarter of the population is said to be gay and where only 15 per cent voted for Bush in the 2000 election.

Republicans think she will be easy meat. Her opposite number in the 108th Congress, the new Republican majority leader, will be none other than our old friend the former pest exterminator from Texas Tom DeLay, a red-faced man quite happy to spray his toxic chemicals on all "liberals". It shows how right-wing this country has become when Pelosi is considered to be an "ultra-leftist" (a term usually applied only to overseas countries, but now gaining more currency domestically). She is actually a wealthy, former public relations woman who lives with her very wealthy husband, an investor, in homes in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco and in Georgetown, Washington.

DeLay's glee may prove short-lived. Pelosi is also a tough, experienced political operator. Her father was from the old American school of big-city mayors: Thomas D'Alesandro, from an Italian Catholic family, was a US congressman before getting himself elected mayor of Baltimore three times between 1947 and 1959. She was the only girl in a family of seven raised in Baltimore's Little Italy neighbourhood, and has five children of her own. She went to Trinity College, a Catholic women's school in Washington, before moving westwards to California. She says of herself today: "I'm a liberal Democrat, but I'm a conservative Catholic - put that into the mix."

She thus demonstrates the newly emerging regionalisation and geographic polarisation of US politics, with the Democrats becoming the party of east and west coasts and parts of the Midwest, and the Republicans dominating everywhere else. To people like DeLay, San Francisco means not only "liberal", but also gay - making Pelosi already a sniggering joke to baying Republicans. But she, too, can hand it out, referring to the former President Bush, for example, as "a jerk".

She is also valued in Democratic Party circles as a fundraiser; she served not only as chairman of the Californian Democratic Party but also as finance chairman of the Democratic senatorial campaign committee. For this month's midterm elections, she travelled to 30 states to raise more than $7m for other candidates; so certain is she of victory in her own constituency that she gave away to other campaigns more than $1m from her coffers. She is also something of an economics specialist. While Al Gore - making his political comeback in the past week, as predicted here in the summer of 2001 - criticised Bush's economic policies as "catastrophic", she says they have brought America "to a new level of recklessness and irresponsibility".

But whatever she says, she says with a smile - a habit her political foes find disarming. She says becoming minority leader is a "staggering honour", and friends say she will concentrate on issues such as trade, gun control and Bush's $1.3trn tax cuts. Dick Armey, the retiring Republican House leader, says no one should underestimate her - as DeLay and his friends are clearly doing. Whatever she says, a friend believes, she says with friendship and reasonableness in her voice: a trait sufficient to send DeLay and co exploding into outer space. We are in for entertaining times.