The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pelosi solidifies support among dozens of Democratic freshmen on eve of crucial vote

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday solidified support among dozens of newly elected Democrats in a show of strength for her speaker’s bid designed to counter a group of Democratic dissidents.

On the eve of a crucial vote, Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke to roughly 60 incoming members at a closed-door session, praising the newcomers, most of them women, appealing for unity, and delivering an implicit pitch for a return to the top position.

“We want to remove all doubt to how we go forward in a way that puts our best foot forward on Day One, in order to show that we can govern,” she said, according to notes from a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the session. “That we can govern in a way that is transparent and hopeful and fair — in a way that is bipartisan, frankly.”

House Democrats meet on Wednesday to nominate a speaker and choose members of the leadership team. Pelosi has no challenger and the backing of 149 Democrats, according to The Washington Post’s count, but 22 new and incumbent Democrats oppose her candidacy.

Does Pelosi have the votes to become speaker?

The corps of Democratic freshmen represents the fruit of a midterm election that could flip as many as 40 seats from Republicans, the party’s biggest single-year gain in the House since the post-Watergate election of 1974.

Twenty of the Democratic freshmen signed a letter released Tuesday endorsing Pelosi, hailing her work to pass the Affordable Care Act during her previous stint as speaker and saying that “voters put us back into the majority largely because of our promises to protect and expand people’s access to that care.”

But the new class also poses some peril to Pelosi’s campaign to return as speaker: About a dozen incoming members who ran in Republican-leaning areas have said they will oppose her in a January floor vote. Their potential opposition, along with that of about a dozen incumbents, could keep Pelosi from claiming the gavel.

The leaders of the dissidents say that Wednesday’s vote will make clear that Pelosi does not have the absolute majority of House members needed to win the speakership vote set for Jan. 3.

“She’ll be the default choice because she’s the only candidate running, but we expect the vote tomorrow to show that she doesn’t have the votes to become speaker,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). “Our hope is that when Democrats see that she doesn’t have the votes on the floor, another candidate will step forward.”

Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who committed to Pelosi on Tuesday after saying during her campaign that she was inclined to oppose the leader, questioned that strategy.

“I’m not sure I understand it,” she said. “ ‘No’ — and replace with what? If we are truly attempting to be solution-driven, then when you vote no, present a solution or offer up some alternative or a candidate.”

Pelosi lavished effusive praise on the freshmen in a letter delivered to colleagues late Tuesday, calling the class “historic ... by dint of its experience, its diversity and its commitment to deliver progress in the lives of hard-working Americans.”

“Their impact will and must be transformative for the Congress and the Country,” she wrote.

In her presentation, Pelosi called the caucus a “giant kaleidoscope,” aimed at quashing potential tensions between moderate newcomers elected in GOP-
leaning districts and outspoken progressives from Democratic strongholds.

“Make your fight, make your case, but not every fight is the last fight,” she said. “. . . We are all resources to each other, so we don’t harm anybody along the way.”

But the immediate threat to caucus unity isn’t ideology but the challenge to Pelosi’s leadership. It has opened a chasm among incumbents, between challengers intent on shaking up the top leadership ranks and Pelosi loyalists frustrated at the nature of the uprising.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a Pelosi ally and chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the rebels risked widening the dispute if they carry their opposition past Wednesday’s nominating vote.

“She’ll get the overwhelming majority, and I think that makes it imperative she be speaker,” he said. “At the end of the day, it will be Nancy, whether it’s tomorrow or the day after, but all this acrimony at a time we should be showing unity is probably not good optics.”

If Democrats win two uncalled races where their candidates are leading, they will have won 235 seats, meaning Pelosi can weather as many as 17 defections.

An unsettled question is what steps, if any, Pelosi can take to win support among the dissidents or a broader group that has called for new leadership without specifically saying they will vote against Pelosi.

A letter circulated among the freshmen this week suggests there is room for negotiation.

“Politically and ideologically, we have different views,” reads a draft letter, first reported by Politico. “But make no mistake, we are united in the belief that the Class of 2019 has a responsibility and mandate for change in the U.S. Congress.”

Some of the demands laid out in the draft letter include provisions that Pelosi has already at least partially agreed to, such as mandatory 72-hour notice before voting on legislation and a streamlined process for bipartisan bills with broad support.

Other demands include holding monthly meetings with the top three leaders on the freshman-class priorities, doubling the freshman representation on the party steering committee, and designating an unspecified number of slots for new members on the most exclusive House committees — including Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Ways and Means.

In the meeting Tuesday, Pelosi addressed several of those issues — agreeing to hold twice-a-month meetings with the freshmen and giving the new class the power to choose their own representative on the steering committee.

Ahead of Wednesday’s closed-door caucus votes, Pelosi’s allies and her detractors sought to set expectations in a bid to define the stakes.

A critical benchmark is Pelosi’s performance the last time she ran for a top leadership position two years ago: Facing a challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), Pelosi won on a 134-to-63 vote.

This time, the dynamics are different: For one, she is seeking to lead a considerably larger caucus after an election in which Democrats exceeded expectations. Moulton conceded that, because Pelosi has no opponent, she would garner a higher percentage.

Pelosi has embraced a strategy of standing firm alongside the similarly long-tenured No. 2 and No. 3 party leaders — Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (S.C.), who are seeking to be promoted to majority leader and majority whip, respectively. That wall of mutual support has made it difficult for Pelosi foes to expose daylight or float a candidate who has been anywhere near the most significant levers of power.

Hoyer made a show of strength Tuesday, releasing a letter endorsing his candidacy signed by 184 House Democrats — more than three-quarters of the incoming caucus, including two-thirds of the freshman class. His popularity across the caucus’s subdivisions has dampened efforts by some of Pelosi’s foes to float other names for the No. 2 spot as a consolation prize if Pelosi survives.

The lockstep support of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn has descended into lower-profile races, such as the competitive contest for the chairmanship of the Democratic caucus between Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.).

Jeffries, a young New Yorker who has explored running for multiple leadership posts, said Tuesday that he expected Pelosi and her allies to bring younger lawmakers into the fold.

“Once we get through all of this, we’re going to need to come together because there are real issues we have to tackle on behalf of the American people,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll do that sooner than later.”

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