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Pelosi faces daunting challenge in speaker’s bid as Democratic foes stand firm

After pushing off questions about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi until after the election, many non-incumbent Democrats are still dodging questions about her. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday faced solid opposition from at least 17 Democrats and encountered a significant bloc of undecided women in her bid for speaker, setting the stage for an intense battle over who will ascend to one of the most powerful positions in Washington.

After a campaign in which some Democrats prevailed in competitive districts by promising to oppose her, a coalition of incumbents and newly elected members have denied her a smooth path to the speakership. Those ranks could swell as more races are called.

Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, who ran on an explicit pledge to oppose the 78-year-old California lawmaker, said Wednesday she was determined to keep her word to constituents and back someone else.

“I think there are some great people that will be coming forward, and I’m excited to see who those people might be,” Sherrill said. “They haven’t identified themselves yet, but we have such a deep bench of talent in the Democratic Party.”

The defections, if they stand, would leave Pelosi several votes short of the 218 she would need when the full House votes for speaker Jan. 3. However, no Democrat has stepped forward to run against her.

Pelosi and her allies worked furiously Wednesday, rolling out endorsements from several major unions while she made her case to the Congressional Black Caucus, a crucial bloc. At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, a newly elected lawmaker from Pelosi’s home state shut down an attempted rules change advanced by one of her critics.

Pelosi, who has led the Democrats for more than 15 years, has put her gender front and center in the campaign, arguing that a woman must be at the table to do business with President Trump and male congressional leaders. She raised millions of dollars and campaigned hard for dozens of women who will be part of a record number in the House.

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But some of those women were unwilling Wednesday to say definitively that they would back Pelosi — despite suggestions from some of her allies that it would be an insult to female voters to do anything less.

“I’m really looking forward to having a conversation to make sure that we’re all aligned on an agenda,” Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) said. “That’s really important when thinking about who to support as leader.”

If Pelosi is to take back the speakership, a job she held from 2007 through 2010 as the first woman in the post, she will need support from many of these women. And as she and her allies worked to ensure that she gets it, some argued that after an election season with women at the fore, a female speaker is paramount.

“I think the fact that we have won the House majority because of women candidates with huge women turnout, to then deny the first woman speaker who led us to that victory the gavel I think would be a slap in the face of a lot of voters who sent us here,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

Pelosi succeeded in winning over at least one female newcomer in the course of the day: Jennifer T. Wexton of Virginia, who went from declaring herself undecided around noon to announcing her support for Pelosi by day’s end, calling her “the best qualified to lead our caucus in a productive way.”

There are 34 women among the 54 newly elected House Democrats, although a handful of races remain uncalled. As of now, there are 17 current and incoming lawmakers who have declared their intent to oppose Pelosi; among them are five women. If the current leads hold in uncalled House races and Democrats end up controlling 232 seats next year, Pelosi could afford to lose only 14 of those 17 Democrats on the floor — presuming every Republican votes against her and no one votes “present.”

Members of the small group of incumbent Democrats who are plotting against Pelosi said Wednesday that they are continuing to solicit signatures to a letter declaring that its signers will not support her in the Jan. 3 floor vote. Three — Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Filemon Vela (D-Tex.) — said they have gathered the requisite number of signatures, but they have yet to release the total. A House aide familiar with the effort but not authorized to speak publicly about it said the informal goal is to release it by week’s end.

The math may look daunting, but many of Pelosi’s supporters expressed confidence that she will be elected speaker. Allies circulated criticism of her opponents on Twitter with the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys on Wednesday, picturing five leaders of the anti-Pelosi Democratic movement in the House who are all white men and comparing them to conservative dissidents in the House Republican conference.

Even though her opponents include women, such arguments reinforce one of the rationales advanced by Pelosi for why she should be returned as speaker. She has said that had Hillary Clinton won the presidency instead of Donald Trump, she would have been content to step aside. But because Clinton lost, the presence of a woman is crucial in congressional and White House negotiations.

Far from rejecting that argument, some of her opponents have echoed it even while calling for change at the top of the Democratic caucus.

“Amongst our group, there is wide consensus that our intent is, when we get to the point of seeking a new leader, that we have a woman in either the top leadership spot or the second spot,” Vela said.

He said there are several women in the caucus who would be well-prepared to take the reins, among them Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio), who told reporters that she’s being encouraged to stand for speaker if Pelosi doesn’t have the votes.

“I’ve not talked to any of the new members. I’m not sure that I will. But I think that if in fact we were elected on change, then we should have change,” Fudge said.

Democrats will vote internally on their nominee for speaker on Nov. 28. Pelosi is likely to win that vote easily, but the real test will come in the floor vote by the full House in January, where the margin Pelosi can lose will be much slimmer.

Addressing a scenario in which Pelosi cannot command the needed floor votes and yet there still is not anyone running against her, Fudge said: “Someone will emerge, if no one has emerged before that. We’re not going to allow the Republicans to have a speaker.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), a Pelosi opponent who said she had been in touch with newly elected women, said she did not appreciate the efforts to put these incoming lawmakers on the spot by suggesting that it would be anti-woman to oppose Pelosi.

“These are all strong, intelligent women who got into a race who had never been in politics before and won really difficult races,” Rice said. “They should not be disrespected that way. There are other women to support in this caucus who are perfectly capable of being in leadership.”

The maneuvering among House Democrats took place as House Republicans elected their new slate of leaders for next year. Apart from the retirement of the current speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Republicans are sticking with familiar faces despite their midterm losses. The current majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, easily turned back a challenge from conservative Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan of Ohio to serve as minority leader, while the current whip, Steve Scalise (La.) will serve in the same role in the minority next year.

Pelosi extended words of welcome to her potential opponents. “Come on in, the water’s warm,” she said when asked about them before a caucus meeting.

Before addressing the session, Pelosi met with the Congressional Black Caucus — among the most important blocs inside the party — at Democratic National Committee headquarters. She promised to take quick action to shore up the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and pledged to give committee chairs a free hand to move legislation through their panels, a major issue for the CBC, which counts five incoming chairs in its ranks.

Pelosi stayed focused on the coming agenda and did not ask directly for speaker votes, but an attendee said the impression was clear: “It’s hard to separate the two.”

Later, at a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in which newly elected lawmakers met with returning members for the first time, Perlmutter sought to advance a rules change that could help the anti-Pelosi group to their goal.

But as he laid out his case, Rep.-elect Katie Hill of California spoke up, asking Perlmutter and his allies to step back from the “internal strife.”

“The freshmen here would like to move forward,” she said, effectively shutting down the debate, according to a person in the room and confirmed by Hill.

Hill, who flipped a seat from Republicans north of Los Angeles, said she was likely to support Pelosi.

“We need to hit the ground running, Day One. And that’s really what it boils down to: I think we need to minimize any internal party strife; we need to get going,” she said.

“This is the biggest year for women candidates that we have ever seen,” Hill added, “and I think our leadership needs to reflect that.”

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