Potential challenger endorses Pelosi for speaker as alternatives for unhappy Dems dwindle

In this Nov. 15, 2018, photo, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Pelosi’s bid to return as House speaker is putting newly elected Democrats in a spot. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Nancy Pelosi cleared a major hurdle in her effort to become House speaker Tuesday as one of the few Democrats who had floated a possible run against her backed down and endorsed her instead, but other obstacles still lie ahead for the current minority leader.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said in a statement Pelosi assured her black women will have a seat at the decision-making table in the 117th Congress, allaying her concerns about a lack of diversity and inclusiveness in leadership.

Fudge’s announcement came a day after 16 fellow Democrats drew a line in the sand by signing a letter formally announcing they will not support Pelosi for speaker, potentially throwing her nomination into doubt but providing no specific path forward without her. Several of them had suggested they would support Fudge if she ran.

After retaking the House majority, Democrats will vote next week on who they will nominate for speaker on the House floor in January. Pelosi, who held the job last time they were in majority, is currently the only candidate, but these 16 lawmakers argue she does not represent “real change in Washington.”

“The American people cried out for change in this election,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., one of leaders of the anti-Pelosi push, told a contentious crowd at a town hall in Massachusetts Monday night. “I think if our party answers that call for change with the same status quo leadership team we’ve had in place since 2006, we’re failing the American people.”

The letter was signed by a mix of newcomers and persistent Pelosi critics, all of whom maintain reinstalling the same leadership team that was in charge when Democrats lost the House eight years ago would miss the point voters were making.

“Pelosi is 78, [Minority Whip Rep.] Steny Hoyer is 79, and [Assistant to the Leader Rep.] James Clyburn is 78,” said Richard Arenberg, a former Capitol Hill staffer and author of “Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.” “The three have led the Democrats in the House since 2005. The opposition is banking on this being a ‘change election.’”

The exact number of defectors Pelosi is facing is unclear. Of the 16 who signed the letter, one, Ben McAdams, has not yet been projected to win his race in Utah. Several other members have reportedly committed privately to opposing Pelosi but declined to put their names on the letter. CNN currently estimates 24 likely “no” votes.

The strategy appears to be predicated on Pelosi backing down in the face of insurmountable opposition, but allies say she has no intention of doing so and she has publicly projected confidence she will have the votes.

In interviews last week, several House Democrats said they would give fair consideration to anyone who wants to oppose Pelosi, but absent a specific challenger, their support for her was firm.

“I will certainly look at any candidate to determine if they have the experience, tenacity and desire to serve, all of which Nancy Pelosi has,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. “If someone else steps up, I’ll consider that person’s qualifications.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., rejected the notion of change for the sake of change.

“If somebody wants to oppose Nancy Pelosi, they should do so, and they should offer an alternative to what she has articulated as her agenda and her method as speaker and we can measure that vision,” he said. “So far, that has not happened.”

The letter articulates no specific policy or strategy differences with Pelosi, and its authors have rarely pointed to any, other than a desire to bring new perspectives into a leadership team currently made up of septuagenarians and multiterm incumbents.

“The Democratic leadership in the House and in the Senate is exclusively old folks,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University. “This dust-up is not, by and large, about policy differences. It’s about the public face of the party and it’s about opportunities for younger people to move into positions of somewhat greater power and authority.”

There is no dispute the Democratic Party needs to find newer, younger leaders, but until they do, some question the wisdom of tossing Pelosi aside.

“Seth Moulton is exactly right. We do need a change in leadership,” said Scott Ferson, a Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist whose past clients include Rep. Stephen Lynch, one of the letter’s authors, but he added, “This kind of two-step of ‘we’ll depose her and then we’ll figure it out’ is hard.”

Pelosi has cast her candidacy for speaker as a transitional one, but she has not specified how long she aims to serve in that role. Though she shares the yearning for something new, progressive radio host Arnie Arnesen sees Pelosi’s institutional experience and her history as assets for Democrats in a battle with a Republican Senate and an unpredictable president.

“She offers a level of stability we need right now because everything is in chaos,” Arnesen said. “That’s her role right now, to prepare for the future and the future doesn’t have her name on it.”

GOP efforts to cast Pelosi as the liberal bogeywoman in races across the country this fall largely failed to stem their losses, but Democrats in some swing districts promised constituents they would not support her for speaker if they won. Her opponents within the party are counting on them to keep those promises, but they still have not offered up an alternative.

Skeptics maintain you cannot beat somebody with nobody, but the anti-Pelosi faction seems poised to test that. With Fudge out of contention, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, is the only Democrat who has explicitly not ruled out running against Pelosi, and even he has not confirmed he will do it.

“No one has stepped forward to challenge Pelosi which itself is testimony to the absence of a groundswell,” Arenberg said.

Ryan, 45, has been down this road before. He tried unsuccessfully to unseat Pelosi as minority leader after Democrats were humbled by their 2016 losses. He got 63 votes within the caucus at the time, making a case that Democrats had neglected their working-class base and needed to pivot to a stronger economic message.

Though he failed, Ryan’s 2016 revolt did pressure Pelosi to create “vice-ranking member” positions on committees and open up additional policy leadership positions. She, Hoyer, and Clyburn remained at the top, though.

In 2018, Pelosi is riding the high of winning back control of the House with the biggest Democratic wave since Watergate, driven in part by $134 million she raised for Democratic candidates. Ryan’s case that Pelosi is out of touch and Democrats cannot connect with the working class is harder to make.

“It’s different than it was two years ago when we should have had a leadership change,” Ferson said. “She won She’s the head of the caucus and she oversaw a historic pickup of seats.”

Fudge, 66, is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She said after a meeting with Pelosi Friday she wanted to see a succession plan and an effort to make the caucus more inclusive before deciding whether to support her.

Progressives have at times criticized Pelosi for being too moderate, but she has worked in recent weeks to shore up support on her left. As word of the letter’s existence spread in the last week, Pelosi racked up endorsements from major progressive groups and the leaders of the House Progressive Caucus.

“Were it not for her skilled and effective leadership, the ACA would not be law today. Dems must reject attempts to defeat her and move caucus to the right,” MoveOn.org said in a statement urging Democrats to support Pelosi.

Pelosi’s defenders, including some Republicans who have tussled with her in the past, point to her track record of advancing Democratic legislative priorities, herding an ideologically-diverse caucus, and standing up to relentless GOP attacks.

“Why do you think we made HER the focus of the 2010 Campaign and NOT Obama? It still amazes how much Democrats continue to underestimate the effectiveness of @NancyPelosi I didn’t then. And I still don’t,” said former RNC Chair Michael Steele on Twitter.

Experts say there is simply nobody in the Democratic caucus who can compete with Pelosi’s experience and effectiveness. That legislative prowess will be vital as the party attempts to balance aggressive oversight of the Trump administration with governing while likely fending off calls to pursue impeachment proceedings that leaders fear would be seen as overreach.

“I think the Democrats ultimately may realize Pelosi is better-suited to that strategy than anyone else in their caucus,” Altschuler said.

If, as currently seems most likely, Pelosi wins the Democratic nomination for speaker next week, her intraparty enemies would face a difficult choice in January, when Pelosi and a Republican, presumably incoming Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, would be the only viable options.

The math gets a bit complicated. In the floor vote, Pelosi needs to win the support of a majority of voting members, typically 218. If members simply vote “present,” though, they are not counted, so the threshold for a majority drops. Depending on how many Democrats are ultimately certified as winners of their races, Pelosi might be able to lose most or all who signed the letter and still hold a majority.

“It’s not that the 16 have to retreat. It’s that maybe two or three or four have to,” Altschuler said.

Spokespeople for several of the members and future members who signed the letter did not respond to requests for comment on what they would do in this scenario Tuesday, but Arnesen doubts they would actually allow a Republican to become speaker.

“Whatever they do, they will not give the speakership to McCarthy,” she said. “But the fact is, pressure will happen, and that’s totally appropriate.”

Experts expect any disagreements within the party will be resolved one way or another before January. If she prevails next week, Pelosi may have to make more concessions to the younger generation of the caucus to secure the deciding votes on the floor.

“That’s a month-plus after the caucus,” Ferson said. “That’s a long time to play out political drama where you basically say, ‘I’m going to the wedding and I am going to stand up and object.’”

One less attractive option for Pelosi would be to seek Republican votes. Rep. Tom Reed, co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN Monday the 24 GOP members of the group would consider voting for her if she agrees to rule changes that would allow more votes on bipartisan legislation.

"What this is is seizing the opportunity, historically, of a new speaker candidate who can embrace these reforms to get the institution working for the American people again," Reed said.

Reed insists this is a genuine offer, as does President Trump, who claimed over the weekend he would help whip votes for Pelosi if necessary, but few are taking it seriously.

“President Trump raised the specter of some Republicans voting for Pelosi to put her over the top,” Arenberg said. “That is highly unlikely.”

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