It was four years ago when Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) first started nudging his party’s top leaders about making way for new blood.
“It was like, ‘Okay, you guys are my friends. It’s just, you’ve got to start passing the torch here,’ ” he recalled Friday in his Capitol Hill office. “Maybe I should have stepped back and just . . . not worried about it. But I did worry about it.”
Now Perlmutter — a mild-mannered former state lawmaker from the Denver suburbs who has rarely found himself in the national spotlight — is playing a reluctant but pivotal role in determining Nancy Pelosi’s future as the leader of House Democrats.
He is among roughly 30 House Democrats who opposed Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a party nominating election Wednesday and among a smaller group threatening to block her in a decisive Jan. 3 floor vote for the next speaker.
But Perlmutter is also seen by both Pelosi’s inner circle and her avowed critics as a low-key bridge-builder who could be crucial to ending the standoff that threatens to throw the earliest days of the House Democratic majority into chaos.
“His DNA is completely about being a team player,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who is a close friend and roommate of Perlmutter’s but is backing Pelosi. “I don’t know exactly what Ed’s going to do, but I think there is a very powerful impulse inside of him that I think is going to do everything possible to find a safe landing for the caucus as a whole.”
Perlmutter, 65, said he is not interested in entering the leadership ranks himself or winning any personal commitments from Pelosi — the positions of influence or legislative promises that have already helped bring other members onboard.
Instead, he said Friday, he is solely focused on negotiating “some kind of a transition” to younger leadership from the current top-three leadership lineup of Pelosi, 78, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), 79, and Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), 78.
For now, the parties remain at loggerheads. Pelosi scoffed Friday when asked whether compromise could be reached on an exit plan.
“Between saying when I’m going to retire or not? I don’t think so,” she said, adding, “I don’t think, by the way, that they should be putting timelines on a woman speaker.”
A Wednesday meeting between Pelosi and other leaders of the group — Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) — ended badly when Pelosi flatly rejected their request for an exit plan. As the public face of Pelosi’s opposition, the trio have had an icy relationship with the top leader, and they have felt a backlash from her allies in Congress and liberal activists elsewhere.
Perlmutter has been similarly insistent about the need for a shake-up, but he has kept lines of communication open with Pelosi in recent weeks and said he has already had “several conversations” with her about a potential settlement.
When Pelosi visited a meeting of the centrist New Democrat Coalition before Thanksgiving, she approached Perlmutter and hugged him as she left the room — an embrace that perplexed some observers given his public opposition. Perlmutter said it was simply a gesture of friendship.
“She’s been persistent and cordial and thoughtful, and we’ve had good conversations,” he said. “I think eventually something is going to come out of this, but we’re not there yet.”
An agreement stands to bring along enough Democratic incumbents to elect Pelosi speaker on Jan. 3 while also allowing more than a dozen freshmen who promised during their campaigns to oppose Pelosi to do so.
Another Pelosi opponent, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), said Friday that he was hoping for a “negotiated settlement” that would resolve the issue: “We need to have some transparency on a succession plan — for, really, the top three leadership positions,” he said.
Neither Foster nor Perlmutter would detail what kind of accommodation could be reached that would offer the sort of transition guarantee their group is seeking while stopping short of the firm exit date Pelosi is rejecting.
“Nobody makes themself a lame duck,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a Pelosi ally. “I think she is a tough lady. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She delivered votes for the Affordable Care Act. She brought the House back [under Democratic control], and she will be speaker in January.”
Dingell said that if Pelosi’s opponents as a group can’t accept that she will remain in charge indefinitely, she will keep “knocking ’em off, one by one,” cutting individual deals.
Rice said Wednesday she understood why Pelosi does not want to announce a transition plan. “Just ask Paul Ryan — it has the ability to affect your ability to get things done,” she said of the current Republican speaker, who saw his fundraising and legislative pace slacken after he announced his retirement in March.
But, she added, voters want change nonetheless. Yet where Moulton, Rice and Tim Ryan often speak sharply about the need for new leadership and the political peril that Pelosi poses to swing-district candidates due to her unpopularity among Republicans, Perlmutter prefers a wistful tone.
He points to the friends and colleagues who rose in the House ranks before leaving for other opportunities amid the current leaders’ long hold on power — lawmakers such as former caucus chairman Xavier Becerra, who is now California’s attorney general, and former campaign committee chairmen Rahm Emanuel, Chris Van Hollen and Steve Israel — who are now, respectively, Chicago mayor, a Maryland senator and a published novelist.
“A thousand things have changed in my life, and I could go through those with you, but our senior leadership has not,” Perlmutter said. “I just see such talent within our caucus, and I’ve wanted to see that talent emerge.”
Another friend who is backing Pelosi, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), said the two have long spoken about the repressed ambition inside the party ranks. Both men were elected in the Democratic wave year of 2006 and have climbed up the committee ranks: Perlmutter could chair a Financial Services subcommittee next year; Yarmuth is set to chair the Budget Committee.
“We have the same period of observation, and we’ve dealt with one leadership team,” Yarmuth said. “While they have been incredibly effective, we see how the caucus is changing . . . Now you’ve got leadership that is essentially the parents’ age of the average member, so to not have somebody closer to that generation is, I think, a mistake on our part.”
Perlmutter said Friday that he was encouraged this week by the election of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), 48, as caucus chairman and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), 57, as campaign chairman. He also said that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn remain “stars” in the Democratic firmament.
“When you put the three of them together, they’re a pretty impenetrable bunch because they are so good,” he said. “But at some point, and I think we’re getting to that point, there’s going to be change. And change is going to be a little bit messy and not particularly pretty, but you can minimize that by having some kind of a transition approach. That’s my position.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.