For now, the anti-Pelosi caucus is determined to show she lacks the votes to become speaker — settling on an alternative will sort itself out later.
The House Democratic rebels trying to keep Nancy Pelosi from becoming speaker have a big problem: They can’t seem to find someone to run against her.
The naysayers claim they have the 15 to 20 votes it would take to block Pelosi on the House floor. But so far, no one’s stepped up as an alternative, and it’s unclear who might. Also unknown is whether that person would have a prayer against the experienced Pelosi, as flawed as her detractors say she is.
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Pelosi is acting like the next speaker already, and any effort to replace her faces immense obstacles without a viable alternative, said Democratic lawmakers and aides.
“In politics, nobody is perfect, including Nancy Pelosi. But the basic rule is you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who backs the California Democrat. “That’s the problem with Nancy’s skeptics.”
Another Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named argued that Pelosi “has all the skills we need, no one else really has that package.”
Pelosi’s critics believe a challenger eventually will emerge. In 2016, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) waited almost two weeks after the GOP crushed House Democrats to declare his bid against her.
The question surrounding Pelosi’s future is the only cloud over what was a hugely successful election for House Democrats. On one hand, there’s a cast of incoming Democratic freshmen who ran on change, in some cases starting with Pelosi; on the other, there is no potential replacement with anything approaching the seasoning or legislative savvy the 78-year-old Californian possesses, making it hard to see how she won’t be speaker again.
Leaders of the anti-Pelosi faction acknowledged that some lawmakers are nervous about taking on Pelosi, who’s presided over the caucus for 16 years. That’s why they’ve focused on growing their numbers. The first order of business, they say, is to demonstrate that Pelosi doesn’t have the 218 votes needed to be speaker; after that, they figure a challenger will emerge.
Even if no one steps up immediately, some rebels believe they can still push out Pelosi.
“The idea that you can’t beat somebody with nobody isn’t true when you have a minimum threshold to meet,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) one of the organizers of the movement against Pelosi. “We have a lot of great, diverse candidates from all across the caucus who would be fantastic as our next speaker. They just need the opportunity to rise up and step forward.”
Not all her critics are so confident. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who’s vowed to vote against Pelosi on the House floor, acknowledged that the lack of an alternative candidate “makes it more difficult … for a lot of members” because “they need to have somebody to vote for.”
“But at this point in time, we don’t have anyone to run to remove the rock in the road,” he said.
Pelosi has offered a variety of reasons why she should be reelected as speaker. She argues that she has the toughness to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump in the White House. In a nod to the calls for her to move on, Pelosi also suggested before the election that she would be a “transitional” leader, though she is not repeating that possibility in recent conversations with members.
At the same time, a group of incoming freshman told voters that they would not back her, and she is seen as toxic in their Republican-leaning districts. Voting for Pelosi could put these seats at risk in 2020.
There’s clearly angst about Pelosi’s return to the speakership among a large bloc of House Democrats, though that doesn’t mean they will vote against her, especially if there’s no better candidate to replace her. Many have privately prayed for Pelosi’s exit for years and bemoaned the trio of septuagenarians who‘ve created a leadership bottleneck at the top: Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
The push for new leadership suffered a setback this spring when Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), widely viewed as potential Pelosi successor, lost a June primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That left Pelosi’s most aggressive critics without an obvious option.
Several House Democrats have expressed interest, but so far, none has been willing to challenge her for speaker. Other established figures — including Hoyer and Clyburn — have made clear they’ll support Pelosi as long as she’s there.
There are sound reasons why any Democrat would be wary of taking on Pelosi, especially at this stage. A challenger would get “beat up badly,” Schrader said. Better to keep the focus on Pelosi, he insisted.
“Anybody but her,” Schrader said.
Following the disappointing election results in 2016, Ryan won 63 votes in a closed-door caucus vote, while Pelosi received 134, her poorest showing since running against Hoyer for deputy minority whip in 2001. Yet all but four Democrats ultimately supported Pelosi on the House floor in the public roll call, including Ryan himself.
This time, Pelosi faces a steeper task. For minority leader, she needed just a majority of the Democratic Caucus to vote for her as leader. Now, a small number of Democrats — the precise figure depends on a handful that have yet to be called, but it’s likely 17 to 20 — combined with presumably unanimous opposition from Republicans, could sink her bid for speaker.
So far, 10 current or incoming Democratic House members have said they will vote against her on the House floor.
Democrats will choose their leaders starting on Nov. 28. The floor vote for speaker takes place on the first day of the new Congress.
Ryan has not ruled out running against Pelosi but clearly does not want to. The anti-Pelosi group has sounded out numerous other Democrats about challenging Pelosi but would not say who they are.
If Pelosi’s critics can’t find someone to take her on, they do have one extreme tactic at their disposal: take the fight to the House floor and attempt to deny her the votes to be speaker even without a successor in place. That’s exactly what the House Freedom Caucus hoped to do following the 2016 election, when they chose conservative Rep. Jim Jordan to become what they called the “sacrificial lamb” against Speaker Paul Ryan.
At the time, Freedom Caucus leaders were under no pretense that Jordan would win, but that wasn’t the point. The hard-line conservatives merely wanted to deny Ryan — who had repeatedly criticized Trump during the campaign — the votes he needed to be speaker, in the hopes that another pro-Trump candidate would emerge. The group ultimately backed down when Trump supported Ryan for the job.
Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a Pelosi critic who believes they can take her out without a challenger, predicted a repeat of the Freedom Caucus move. “My position from the very beginning has been that we’ve got to do this on the House floor,” Vela said.
Such a ploy would throw the caucus into chaos just as Democrats are taking control. The leadership vacuum would almost certainly divert attention from the party’s platform and its oversight of Trump.
It’s still unclear whether the anti-Pelosi movement will have the numbers to derail her. “I don’t know if there’s a big part of the caucus that actively does not want Nancy Pelosi reelected” as the top Democrat, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.
Connolly added, however, that there is widespread sentiment within the caucus that more leadership opportunities need to be created for younger members over the next two years.
“We are concerned about how we broaden opportunity for the caucus, and what commitments we’re going to get from people who will be in leadership to do that,” he said.