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Pelosi moves aggressively to snuff out challenge to her bid for House speaker

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said no one "deserves anything," but that "I think I'm the best person to go forward" as speaker of the House. (Video: Reuters)

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is moving aggressively to snuff out a challenge from some lawmakers who are demanding new party leadership, while powerful allies outside Congress are helping rally support for her bid for speaker.

Pelosi has yet to clinch the necessary votes and is leaving nothing to chance, according to members and aides familiar with her approach. She is encouraging outside groups to speak up on her behalf while personally talking to the Democrats who will choose the next speaker on Jan. 3.

The organizations represent key parts of the Democratic coalition — bedrock sources of fundraising dollars, campaign muscle and votes — and have significant sway with incumbents and the newly elected.

Emily’s List, which supported virtually every female Democratic House candidate, has made calls to incoming lawmakers to tout Pelosi’s credentials, according to a person familiar with the effort. The leaders of two major unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers — sent letters Monday declaring their support.

“When you look at the situation right now, today,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers union, “there is no candidate that is better than Nancy Pelosi. Unequivocally, we support her.”

Those declarations are meant to defuse the brewing challenge to the 78-year-old California lawmaker’s return as speaker — one coming from a small but insistent group of sitting and incoming lawmakers who say that the party needs new leadership.

Pelosi’s Democratic opponents scramble to organize the resistance

Pelosi, the current House minority leader, is expected to easily win an internal party nomination vote scheduled for the end of the month, but she would then need to win a majority of the House in a January floor vote to become speaker.

At least eight sitting members have signaled they will not vote for her in that scenario, and at least four incoming freshmen have said the same — such as Rep.-elect Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who said Monday he is looking for another candidate to step forward.

“I am not voting for her — no if, ands or buts, under any circumstances,” Rose told Fox News.

A dozen other incoming freshmen have called generally for new leadership without saying specifically that they will oppose Pelosi in a floor vote.

The pressure will be intense for weeks. Three incoming Democrats from deep-blue districts who called for new leadership during their campaigns — Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — all declined to respond to a question about Pelosi after a training session Monday organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“Do you know who’s running?” Tlaib asked wryly before heading into another meeting.

The size of the Democratic majority is in flux, with votes still being counted in uncalled races, but it could range from 13 to 16 seats — giving Pelosi a thin margin of error.

No lawmaker has come forward to challenge Pelosi in the speaker’s race. But members and aides involved in the push to unseat her say they are soliciting signatures for a letter that would make clear that Pelosi cannot win a floor vote. Under those circumstances, they argue, a challenger would quickly emerge.

Publicly, Pelosi has largely dismissed the challenge and has expressed complete confidence that she will return as speaker, unwilling to give any credibility to her opponents.

“In the next few weeks, we need to be unified, find common ground with Republicans in our legislative engagements, but stand our ground when we must,” she wrote in a letter to colleagues Monday setting up the lame-duck congressional session that begins this week.

Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said it was important that people who have worked closely with Pelosi highlight her qualifications — before the public and for skeptical freshman Democrats.

“I’ve actually been there in the trenches with her,” she said. “To me, she is unequivocally the most principled leader that I’ve ever had the chance to work with in Congress.”

Richards said she was not involved in outreach to individual lawmakers about Pelosi’s bid. She said Pelosi did not ask her to voice her support publicly.

Also lending Pelosi support this weekend was AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

In the House, two incoming chairmen — Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) of the Ways and Means Committee and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) of the Oversight Committee — circulated letters Monday backing Pelosi.

“Our new members promised their constituents to bring stability and common-sense to a dysfunctional Washington — not to be drawn into an effort to throw the House into chaos,” Cummings wrote, criticizing those who might vote against her on the floor.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), who won reelection last week in a district carried by Donald Trump and is now seeking to lead the party campaign committee, said he hoped the incoming members critical of Pelosi will think again.

“It’s not just about you anymore. It’s not just about some campaign or some political opponent,” Maloney said. “You have to think about your country. It’s one thing to be in the minority; you can say anything you want. When you are in the majority you have to get things done, and this is the person who is going to keep us together to get results.”

Also speaking out Monday was AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who wrote in a letter that Pelosi “consistently stood with the hard-working men and women” of his union, joining the leaders of several other major interest groups who have spoken out on Pelosi’s behalf in recent days.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT civil rights organization, said that “we need her leadership now more than ever.” The League of Conservation Voters called her “the most pro-environment Speaker of the House in our nation’s history.” And Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock tweeted praise for Pelosi that she reiterated in an interview Monday.

“This is really about what Nancy has done when she was speaker and will continue to do,” Schriock said, highlighting Pelosi’s efforts to pass and then protect the Affordable Care Act.

The internal resistance to Pelosi will get an initial test Wednesday, when House Democrats meet for the first time since the election and debate a change to party rules, advanced by Pelosi critics, to require a 218-vote majority to win the party’s nomination for speaker.

Fourteen House Democrats loyal to Pelosi criticized that move in a letter Monday, saying that while her critics should be able to make their case, “when the votes are counted and we have selected our leaders in the caucus — whoever they are — we need to unite behind them.”

Republicans have already signaled that vulnerable Democrats will be subject to more fierce political attacks in 2020 if they return Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and No. 3 leader James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) to their top leadership spots.

Polling on Election Day suggested that some Democrats running in Republican-leaning districts have reason to worry. Half of the Democrats who won GOP-held seats last week ran in districts won by Trump.

Only 7 percent of voters in battleground districts said Pelosi was one of the top two issues in their vote for Congress, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Among voters who said Pelosi was one of their top two issues, 88 percent supported Republican candidates while 12 percent supported Democrats.

Pelosi was widely unpopular in a national network exit poll reported by CNN, with 31 percent of voters reporting a favorable opinion of her while 56 percent had an unfavorable view.

David Weigel and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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