Nancy Pelosi fights for Democratic support in bid to reclaim speaker’s gavel

WASHINGTON – Nancy Pelosi wants to be speaker of the House again, and she has eight days left to make her case.

Although Pelosi has said she’s confident she will win her bid, she’s been scrambling to shore up support – even among Democratic groups that have long backed her.

In recent weeks, she spoke to a room of Hispanic lawmakers, hosted a dinner for new Democratic members and joined African-American lawmakers addressing a conference of black activists.

Still, Pelosi, who made history as the first female speaker of the House, is facing an open rebellion from a bloc of 16 Democratic lawmakers who signed a letter calling for a change in the “status quo” of the party’s leadership. And at least one Democrat – Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus – is mulling a challenge for the top spot.

Pelosi’s fight for the gavel comes on the heels of Democrats picking up at least 37 seats to take control of the House after eight years under Republican rule, and that number could tick up as the remaining undecided races are called. Many of those wins came from more diverse suburban districts that had once supported President Donald Trump. 

Pelosi is courting groups as diverse as the Congressional Black Caucus, comprised mostly of progressive members, and the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 centrists.

She has also met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrat Coalition and the Progressive Caucus.

“This is the moment to leverage the agenda,” said Wendy Smooth, associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. “She will get a strong message from her caucuses about the ways they would like the agenda shaped. It depends on what she’s promising in these meetings.”

Smooth said committee assignments and leadership roles are on the table.

The caucuses, some with varying missions, have lengthy wish lists from more action on climate control to protecting voting rights to immigration reforms and changing rules to speed up bipartisan legislation.

Pelosi met with several groups, including the Problem Solvers Caucus, last week.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, co-chair of the caucus, said the meeting was productive and was followed up Monday with a call with Pelosi staffers to discuss the group’s “Break the Gridlock” reform package. The proposal aims to encourage bipartisan cooperation. Nine Democrats from the caucus signed a letter calling for Pelosi’s support.

Pelosi sent a statement last week backing the package in principle, but Gottheimer said the language was specific enough.

“I’ve been pretty clear and a group of us have – we’re only going to back someone who is going to break the gridlock,” Gottheimer said.

Pelosi, who served as speaker from 2007 to 2011, is expected to win the first-round of voting next Wednesday in the Democratic caucus’ closed-door secret election. She only needs a majority to win the nomination. But to become speaker, she will need a majority of the full House – 218 votes – and has little room to lose a significant bloc of Democrats.

Pelosi has pledged to make voting rights – one of the “unifying issues” for the Democrats, according to Smooth – a priority and one of the first measures the House will vote on next session.

And in a nod to one of the most diverse Congresses ever, Pelosi has also touted a proposal to expand a diversity initiative in the chamber and is discussing a possible panel on climate change.

Supporters point to Pelosi’s legislative experience and ability to corral Democrats on issues and note her big role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Many Democrats campaigned on the issue in the midterms.

Some experts said it might not sit well if Pelosi isn’t in the top post, especially at a time when a record number of women have been elected to the House, many of them Democrats.

But it will still be a battle.

“As all women leaders know, it is never the last fight,” Smooth said. “Pelosi is a skilled politician and a skilled woman in politics, so she knows this is only the fight until the next one.”

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the letter signed by the 16 Democrats “complicates things. If all 16 signers hold together and vote against her in the official vote, she’s got a problem.”

Pitney said the next speaker must be ready to take on Trump and wrestle with the Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“Trump is going to press very hard,” Pitney said. “McConnell is a very formidable opponent, and for somebody without any experience, it’s like a touch football player suiting up against the NFL.”

Jeff Van Drew, a newly elected Democrat from New Jersey, said he promised during the campaign he wouldn’t back Pelosi. 

“Not that I have any personal dislike for her, or she didn’t do a good job in her time,” said Van Drew, who was among the Democrats who signed the letter. “But sometimes it’s good to have a fresh new face and to have change and go forward with some new ideas.”

Virginia’s Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger, one of the record number of women who will serve in the next Congress, said “under no circumstances” will she vote for Pelosi.

“It is something that came up frequently on the campaign trail, particularly for our middle-of-the-road voters,” Spanberger said. “I think she is an incredibly strong person, I think that she’s done incredibly good things. But also my background is CIA. You never held a job at CIA longer than three years.”

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said she “remains confident in her support among members and  members-elect.”

He noted that 94 percent of the caucus declined to sign the letter. 

 Several longtime members have pledged support, saying Pelosi has paid her dues and has played a key role in helping Democrats regain control of the House.

“Nancy Pelosi’s not worried,’’ said Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who is in line to chair the Finance Committee. “Nancy Pelosi said we were going to win. And when people doubted her, she said we’re going to win, and guess what? She was right. Nancy Pelosi said she’s going to be the speaker. I believe Nancy Pelosi is right.”

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who said he and Pelosi came to Congress around the same time, said many newer members haven’t worked with her and don’t know her as well.

“She’s been a good leader, and I’m supporting her,” said Lewis, a civil rights icon. “I think we need her leadership, her energy, her strength now more than ever before, and I don’t have any doubt that she would be re-elected as speaker.”

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