Politics

The Threat to Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership Is Suddenly Serious

Her antagonists have her full attention.

Pelosi speaking at a podium.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 7 following the 2018 midterm elections.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Following House Democrats’ first full meeting with both their departing members and incoming members-elect, reporters asked Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan—who’s organizing a suddenly serious opposition to Nancy Pelosi’s bid for speaker—whether he and his allies would really follow through with the effort that’s driving such a rift within the caucus, on its first day in charge, during its first vote.

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t miss a beat.

Ryan claims that his group has members numbering in the “mid-20s” who are adamant that they would not support Pelosi in a floor vote for speaker. Of those known publicly, it’s about an even split between incumbents who’ve sought to overthrow Pelosi for years and new members who ran on a pledge not to support her. Since Pelosi can only suffer about 15 or 17 defections, and if this group’s resolve is as firm as its generals insist it is, she would not have the votes. On Tuesday night, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, one of Pelosi’s most persistent thorns, said with “100 percent” confidence that Pelosi would not have the numbers to become speaker, as did Texas Rep. Filemon Vela.

At some point prior to the Nov. 28 caucus vote determining the party’s nominee for the post, the rebels plan to release a public letter with the signatures of members who would not vote for Pelosi. (An early copy of the letter, obtained by HuffPost Wednesday, already had 17 signatures with more in the wings.) Ideally, they say, Pelosi would see the writing on the wall, bow out of the contest before the caucus vote, and allow House Democrats to nominate someone else who could get 218 votes, thereby avoiding an embarrassing spectacle on the floor.

Minds can change—but those close to Pelosi say that she will never do that.

“Pelosi has been clear she’s taking this to the floor,” one senior Democratic aide said. “She just elected the [most] diverse House of Representatives in history, and she’s not going to be deterred by five white guys.” Her strategy is to win the closed-door caucus nomination on Nov. 28, present the choice as a binary between her and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, and turn the pressure to a boil, daring Ryan’s group to block her on live television.

With each side expressing 100 percent confidence in their ability to succeed, the first House Democratic majority in eight years is headed toward a game of chicken that could play out on the House floor. Just how a majority loves to kick off a fresh congressional session in power.

Though she may dismiss her opposition with a flick of the wrist in public, the flood of emails pouring out from the Pelosi press office suggests that the insurgents have her attention. The leader has blasted endorsements out to reporters, including those from key committee chairmen; unions like the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, and the Service Employees International Union; NARAL; and, for some reason, former President Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Pelosi has made appearances with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus this week, and she’s throwing multiple dinners and receptions for new members who are in town for orientation. As Politico reported, she’s gotten Democrats like Andrew Cuomo, John Kerry, and Al Gore to call specific members. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can’t be too far behind. The pressure is ramping up. Incoming members, who were all smiles to reporters as they showed up for their first day of orientation on Tuesday, have begun to wear a familiar look of terror and pick up their pace when they see a pack of pain-in-the-ass reporters ahead of them, ready to bug them about their first impossible vote.

Ryan and company have had their hands full swatting away what they consider lies or smears from Pelosi’s camp. The opponents take issue with Pelosi supporters’ endlessly repeated creed that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody”—i.e., that the rebels’ inability to line up a direct challenger dooms them. While some coup-curious members would like to have an idea of who would replace Pelosi before signing on, there’s truth to the rebels’ counterargument: You can, indeed, beat somebody with nobody if the somebody can’t get a majority of House votes. In 2015, after Speaker John Boehner was forced out, Kevin McCarthy was defeated by nobody: When it became clear that he couldn’t win the House Freedom Caucus’ votes, he bowed out of the race, and eventually Paul Ryan was persuaded to step up.

That talking point about the “five white guys” trying to oust a woman from her speakership riles up Pelosi’s antagonists, too. The group is broader than Ryan, Moulton, and a few other white guys. Reps. Kathleen Rice and Marcia Fudge are among the steadfast Pelosi opponents, while incoming members like Mikie Sherrill, Elissa Slotkin, Haley Stevens, and Abigail Spanberger have also said, to varying degrees, that they would not support Pelosi.

“I’m a woman, and a lot of our new members are women, and they should not be made to feel that they are anti-woman if they don’t want to vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Rice said. “We have an enormous number of talented women in the caucus. An enormous number of women. So it’s not ‘Nancy Pelosi’s the only woman or we’re not going to have a woman.’ It’s just not right.” Ryan indicated that he, too, would like to see a woman become speaker—there are plenty of “competent females” able to do the job, in his words—and rattled off names like Fudge, California Rep. Karen Bass, and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos.

The incumbents challenging Pelosi argue that they’re trying to help Democrats hold the House majority beyond a single election cycle by allowing members who ran against Pelosi to keep their word.

“The untenable situation that we are giving all of these new members,” Rice said, “is saying to them, ‘You either violate the caucus rule,’ ”—of supporting the party’s speaker nominee during the floor vote—“ ‘or you keep your campaign promise.’ And I just think that that’s wrong. I think we have to do everything we can to keep all of these new members here.”

Ryan also dismissed another option that Pelosi has been exploring: convincing some new members to vote “present” on the floor, which would lower the vote threshold Pelosi would need to win.

“That’s a very dangerous proposition, because not only are you going back on your word, you’re getting cute,” Ryan said. “And the last thing voters want in this environment is someone trying to get cute.”

Pelosi supporters have a different argument for how, in fact, they’re the ones trying to protect new members—while it’s the incumbent challengers who are making things difficult. If the dozen or so incumbent rebels, most of whom won their re-elections comfortably, were willing to cut a deal with leadership for their votes, that would free the new members to vote against Pelosi while avoiding the humiliating floor spectacle and leadership void. For now, though, both sides seem more interested in destroying each other. Temperatures would have to cool before any deals are discussed.

Pelosi is far from finished, even if some of her public supporters, in private, are beginning to speculate about whether she can pull it off. She has six weeks left to apply her full arsenal of pressure tactics. In the worst-case scenario, she could also attempt to persuade some Republicans to either vote for her or vote “present,” something that seems difficult to envision but is under discussion.

One Pelosi ally, with an air of confidence that wasn’t particularly persuasive, told me that the letter Ryan, Moulton, and others are preparing to release will actually be helpful for Pelosi, since it will show her which members she needs to whip. I asked Ryan what he thought about that.

“So you want to flip one of our own who has promised their constituents, who just voted for them, in a huge election,” Ryan said, “[and] your goal is to get them to lie in their first act in Congress? They will not have been in Congress more than an hour, and our leaders are asking them to lie?

“I just think that’s not the way we should be doing business around here.”