Having beaten back a threat from Democratic centrists, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is facing a much different challenge: governing in an era of liberal insurgence.
Pelosi is poised to return to the speaker rostrum overseeing a much different House than when she first took the reins 12 years ago. More importantly, it is a significantly changed Democratic caucus.
More than 60 percent of the 235 Democrats taking the oath on Jan. 3 have no experience from Pelosi’s first run as speaker. The number of Democrats under the age of 50 doubled — about one in four members of the caucus are young enough to be the children of Pelosi, 78, or her two top lieutenants, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, 79, of Maryland, and James E. Clyburn, 78, of South Carolina.
Plus, while the bulk of the newcomers hail from swing districts, 20 freshmen are replacing other retiring Democrats, many of whom come from deep liberal districts with constituents who want the most aggressive action, legislative and otherwise, against President Trump.
That comes after Pelosi spent five weeks putting down the challenge from a group of about two dozen Democrats, including more than 15 incoming freshmen, who tried to block her return as speaker. She wore down the opposition and garnered enough support with over three weeks to spare before the public roll call for speaker on the first day of the new Congress.
In so doing, Pelosi yielded to demands from junior lawmakers about new rules designed to decentralize power from the speaker’s office. Legislation will have to be fully vetted by committees before it can go to the House floor. Special privileges are granted to legislation with support from 20 members of each party.
In a nod to the final holdouts, she agreed to push for term limits on committee chairs and members of leadership, publicly agreeing that she will only serve, at most, four more years as speaker.
Her closest allies believe these concessions will benefit Pelosi in the long run, making the most junior Democrat feel more involved and therefore more grateful to the veteran trio atop the caucus.
“It doesn’t weaken the speakership. I think it gives more voice to individual members, more influence to individual members,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the incoming Rules Committee chairman who is negotiating new bylaws to govern Pelosi’s House.
Yet, more than a dozen incoming freshmen could oppose her in January, keeping to campaign pledges to vote for someone else. In the televised era of Congress, only John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) won the speaker’s gavel with more internal opposition, with 25 Republicans opposing him in January 2015. He resigned 10 months later.
Many lawmakers still marvel at Pelosi’s first run as speaker — ushering in a sweeping agenda that culminated in 2010 with landmark health care and Wall Street laws — but they also question whether anyone will wield that much power again.
“She’s not going to be the force that she was in ’07, ’08, let alone in ’09 and ’10,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a 16-year House veteran.
Cole sees many similarities between the Democratic class of 2018 and the Republican class of 2010. That class of GOP freshmen often clashed with Boehner because he could not deliver big wins with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House.
Pelosi faces the same predicament.
“Over the next two years, anything that gets done is going to have to be a compromise, and compromises tend to disappoint zealots whether they’re on the left or the right,” said Cole, who might serve as McGovern’s GOP counterpart on the Rules Committee. “She and John Boehner should talk a lot. I think the politics is like looking at mirror images.”
Pelosi benefits from having no internal rival that will cause her to keep looking over her shoulder — nothing like how Boehner’s allies felt that Eric Cantor (R-Va.), then the majority leader, kept positioning himself slightly against the speaker.
By the time her dissidents gave in, even they acknowledged that there was no better option than Pelosi to lead Democrats against Trump. That belief was cemented after her televised confrontation with the president this week in the Oval Office, baiting him into taking ownership of a partial government shutdown.
Democratic loathing of Trump, from the most liberal activists to the most centrist lawmaker from a swing district, also will help forge unity behind her.
“Trump creates cohesion on the Democratic side,” Cole said.
Pelosi’s first two years as speaker, during George W. Bush’s last years as president, offer a potential window into how she will govern — and it will be fascinating to see how today’s more assertive liberal activists react.
In 2007, Democrats had fierce battles with the Bush administration over its “surge” in the Iraq War as well controversial techniques used to spy on potential terrorists. But Democrats never forced a government shutdown over those issues and instead racked up some modest but important wins, such as raising the minimum wage and an expanded version of the G.I. bill for veterans.
Their new freshmen did not take many tough political votes and the majority of Americans showed no hesitation about supporting Barack Obama in 2008, giving Democrats total control of Washington.
On Thursday, Pelosi again leaned toward a mix of cautious aggression for the agenda ahead. She promised scrutiny of the administration but ducked questions about the latest criminal revelations in the Trump investigations.
“From our standpoint, what we’re interested in is meeting the needs of America’s working families; to spend our time lowering health care costs by reducing the cost of prescription drugs; increasing paychecks by building infrastructure of America,” she told reporters.
Pelosi seldom mentions the Medicare-for-all proposal embraced by the most liberal wing of her caucus, and she focuses heavily on institutional reforms to Congress and new ethics laws.
McGovern delivered that message to Pelosi in recent discussions. “Look, we have a divided government here, so that puts limits on what we’re going to be able to get accomplished,” he said. “But one thing that we can do is run this place like professionals and restore some integrity to this institution. And I think that would be a huge accomplishment.”
Time will tell if that will meet the demands of this new, younger, more liberal caucus.