House Democrats on Wednesday took their simmering debate over the leadership of Nancy Pelosi off the front burner, agreeing to postpone until after the midterm elections an internal fight over election rules that could undermine the 16-year party leader.
Pelosi’s allies cast the delay as a sign of her resilience and popularity among Democrats, even as Republicans continue to spend tens of millions of dollars across the country trying to tar Democratic candidates by associating them with Pelosi and her four-year tenure as the first female speaker.
But the handful of dissidents who pushed for the rules change said they would not abandon their effort but would delay it to preserve party unity as Democrats try to retake the House majority for the first time since 2011.
“We’re all united moving forward,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who ran against Pelosi (Calif.) two years ago. “Let’s win, and then have the family fight after.”
Several said they were motivated to take action by the more than three dozen Democratic candidates who have distanced themselves from Pelosi on the campaign trail — and the possibility that they could be forced to break a campaign pledge in their first-ever House vote.
Under party rules, House Democrats are required to vote for the official party nominee in a floor vote for speaker. That nomination is determined by a simple-majority, secret-ballot vote of the Democratic caucus.
The proposal would raise that nomination threshold to 218 votes — the number needed to elect a speaker on the floor. That could eliminate the possibility that Democrats could be compelled to vote for a nominee they oppose, and it could also make it impossible for Pelosi to retain her grip on power given the existing kernel of opposition in her caucus and among potential new members.
“A lot of them said they can’t vote for our current leader, and we don’t want to have a binding vote that forces them to vote for her — that would be death,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition who was among 11 Democrats signing a letter asking for the change.
Inside a Wednesday morning closed-door meeting, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) introduced the proposal to colleagues, explained the signers’ desire to avoid a messy leadership squabble playing out on the House floor and suggested it would be better to settle any dispute inside the confines of the Democratic caucus room, according to attendees. But he immediately suggested the matter should wait until after the elections.
However, a Pelosi ally, Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), questioned the proposal anyway, arguing that it could empower a fringe group to derail the wishes of the vast majority of the caucus — likening it to how the conservative House Freedom Caucus has operated on the Republican side.
Pelosi spoke up at that point to agree, according to three attendees, calling it a “blackballing thing” where “any one person can hold this up.”
Most Democrats, meanwhile, saw little appeal to the prospect of internecine warfare over leadership of a majority they have not yet won.
“I think we have to catch the rabbit before we start eating rabbit stew, and right now, we all ought to be in the hunt for the rabbit,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who said he had not developed an opinion on the proposal.
Dozens of sitting lawmakers have shown varying levels of dismay with Pelosi, although no credible challenger has stepped forward who could win support across the party caucus. On the campaign trail, some Democratic candidates have touted their opposition to Pelosi; others have simply called for new leadership in both parties.
Several candidates running in GOP-tilting districts have spent campaign money telling voters that they will not support Pelosi.
They include Kathy Manning, running for an open North Carolina seat, and Anthony Brindisi, a star recruit challenging GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney in Upstate New York. Ken Harbaugh, running in central Ohio against Rep. Bob Gibbs, debuted an ad this month that said he was “the first Democrat to tell Nancy Pelosi to hit the road.”
But Pelosi and her allies say their standing has only strengthened in recent weeks as voters continue to show a strong preference nationally for Democratic House candidates. And, they point out, if Democrats do succeed in regaining power, Pelosi will be well positioned to claim credit.
Several polls, including a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, show that the GOP attacks on Pelosi have not been especially effective — President Trump probably will have much more influence on how voters cast their ballots in November.
That, Pelosi aides say, undermines her critics’ claims that she is costing her party seats in November. “Democrats don’t let Republicans choose their leaders,” said spokesman Drew Hammill.
One House Democrat privately sympathetic to the Pelosi critics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations with colleagues, said Perlmutter and others may have overplayed their hand.
“What if we have a caucus of 219 and two people say no, and everyone else is yes?” the member said. “There’s a bar here that is so high, everyone understands it is subterfuge for getting rid of current leadership. And I think that’s not playing well.”
But those backing the rules change said this week that the future of the Democratic leadership will be up to potentially dozens of new members who will not be relishing the prospect of publicly backing Pelosi after saying otherwise on the campaign trail.
“We have a responsibility to protect them — and our leadership does, too,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). “Selfless leadership is not to put them in a difficult position where they have to either violate caucus rules or violate a campaign pledge that will imperil their reelection.”
The candidates who have broken firmly with Pelosi are generally from more Republican-leaning districts that are less likely to flip to Democrats in November. But several candidates in toss-up and Democratic-leaning districts have called for new leadership, and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) said the post-election numbers will determine how the dispute over Pelosi is ultimately resolved.
“She may have a math problem,” said Higgins, a Pelosi critic. “And if she has a problem, that will force the caucus to think anew about leadership.”