Nancy Pelosi Will Be Speaker. That Doesn’t Mean Her Antagonists Lost.

The real trade-offs of the deal that will make Pelosi speaker again.

Nancy Pelosi.
Nancy Pelosi conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Nancy Pelosi has at last put down the rebellion against her and will now have the votes she needs to return to the speakership after eight years in the House minority. She did it, though, by negotiating on the one issue that she had refused to even consider when the rebellion began.

Throughout the process, Pelosi had refused the so-called rebels’ demands to put a timeline on her retirement plans, arguing that lame-ducking herself would weaken both her position and the Democratic caucus’ strength. But per the deal that Pelosi formally announced Wednesday night, she’s agreed to do just that—even if the timeline she agreed to gives her some cushion. So who is this deal good for?

If passed by the Democratic caucus, the deal, as Politico first reported earlier this week, will impose term limits on the top-three majority leadership positions. The speaker, majority leader, and majority whip will be able to serve three terms in their respective positions, with an option for a fourth term if they win two-thirds’ support of the caucus. These term limits will be retroactive, too. Since Pelosi, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and incoming Majority Whip James Clyburn have each served two terms already, they will each be looking at one more term in their roles with an option for a fourth.

Hoyer has made no secret of his feelings about the deal. In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Hoyer repeatedly and pointedly voiced his opposition to term limits of any kind. He noted that six times in his legislative career, he’s even introduced legislation to repeal the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms.

“I. Am. Not. For. Term. Limits,” he said, after the second or third question on the matter.

The deal could be a net positive for Hoyer and Clyburn, though, as it would ensure that the one person who’s kept them from rising to the very top would be gone in two to four years. Though Hoyer and Clyburn would be on the early side of their mid-80s in four years, they would each have the opportunity to vie for higher positions. Or they could just enjoy retirement. Still, Hoyer, on principle, wasn’t happy that Pelosi was negotiating the terms of his own contract without bringing him in.

“She’s not negotiating for me,” he said.

This is true. Pelosi made a deal that is very much just about Nancy Pelosi, for both sides. Even if the deal doesn’t pass a caucus vote, the rebels got Pelosi to pledge to abide by the terms of the agreement for herself regardless, allowing them to argue that they’ve limited Pelosi to one more term no matter what and Pelosi to argue that she’s got a whole four years left if she’s interested.

“That’s a long time,” she said in her Thursday morning press conference, noting that she negotiated the rebels’ up from their opening bid of a six-month retirement timeline. “I feel very comfortable about what they are proposing, and I feel very responsible to do that, whether it passes or not.”

Pelosi had probably been planning on retiring in two or four years anyway. In an interview this fall, she spoke of herself as a “transitional figure” who had “things to do. Books to write; places to go; grandchildren, first and foremost, to love.” But the thought of formalizing that timeline into hard numbers at the behest of Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton—lawmakers she taunted as “inconsequential” in May—was abhorrent to her. It offended her that she had just won an election, and the immediate reaction from these guys (they were mostly guys) was to demand she set a retirement date. That she made such a deal with them suggests that the core group of her antagonists did a surprisingly strong job of sticking together despite overwhelming internal and external pressure to cave. Had there been committee assignments, policy priorities, or financial pressures that could have flipped them, these members would have been flipped. All that was left was for her to negotiate her own departure.

The clause that forced Pelosi to publicly state that she would abide by the agreement whether it passes or not is vital, because it’s not clear at all that the caucus will OK it. The deal will irritate her allies, who loathe what the rebels have been up to, as well as senior members, committee chairs, and the black and Hispanic caucuses, who worry that senior leadership term limits will create a slippery slope toward term limits on committee chairs. That’s a sensitive issue, because minority members argue that committee chairmanships have traditionally been the way for their caucuses to accrue power within the chamber. For the moment, that discussion has been put on the back burner.

In addition to all of the members who are angry about the proposal, which Pelosi has pledged to whip personally, she will also now have to contend with the jockeying she’s activated. It’s never too early for aspiring congressional leaders to begin competing for an open spot at any eventual point in the future, and the Pelosi deal will set that off, causing a needless distraction on Capitol Hill throughout the next Congress. And questions about whether she will try for another term as speaker will hound Pelosi from this day forward.

But: She will get to be speaker! And in cutting this deal with the incumbent Democrats who had opposed her, she’s done a favor for another bloc that’s on far more precarious political ground: the freshmen Democrats who had pledged on the campaign trail not to support her. With this deal, a dozen or so freshmen from purple or red districts will be able to freely vote against her without costing her the gavel. The most victorious bloc in this deal to secure Pelosi the speakership, ironically, will be the ones who staked their campaigns on her ouster.