Nancy Pelosi’s hold on the House Democratic Caucus is being tested.
Fresh off an Election Day embarrassment, and facing an uprising from her rank-and-file members, Pelosi grudgingly agreed to postpone leadership elections scheduled for Thursday. Democrats will now vote for their leaders on Wednesday, Nov. 30.
The delay is designed to give Democrats time to figure out why they failed to make bigger gains against a Republican ticket led by Donald Trump. Instead of picking up the 10 to 20 seats they had once hoped — or even the majority they secretly dreamed about — Democrats have netted only a half-dozen seats so far, with some races still to be called.
This poor showing has led to a serious round of finger-pointing among Democrats. The culprits range from Hillary Clinton to FBI Director James Comey to their own leadership’s failure to craft an economic message that would appeal to rural white voters.
Pelosi doesn’t appear to be in any serious danger of being ousted. For starters, no one has come forward yet to challenge her, though Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is cautiously weighing a bid for minority leader.
But the next two weeks will now be a debate about the California Democrat’s future. After 14 years of Pelosi’s rule, some Democrats are asking whether it’s time for someone else.
“It’s a big deal because I think our leadership started out today thinking it was business as usual,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). “And I think that probably not just our leadership but many people in our caucus were surprised at the level of discontent in our caucus.”
Immediately after the Nov. 8 election, Pelosi suggested moving back the date of leadership elections. But then she settled on Thursday after what she said was an outpouring of support from her colleagues to move ahead.
“I was ready to go with after Thanksgiving because I didn’t want the new members to be spending all their time worrying about who they are going to vote for this, that or the other thing,” Pelosi told her colleagues, according to an aide in the room. “Then, many of the members were saying, ‘Why are you delaying the elections?’ And the press was picking that up. ‘Why are you delaying the elections?’ I’m not delaying it.”
But several members pushed back, arguing they should just formally postpone the proceedings for several weeks in order to review the election cycle and why they fared so poorly as a party.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) offered the motion to delay the elections, and Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) seconded. There was heated back and forth over the issue. The motion was about to be ruled out of order by Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California when Pelosi acquiesced.
Pelosi was described as “very angry,” “furious” and “extremely defensive” by multiple sources during what was an often “raucous” gathering.
“I know that a lot of people, particularly in the press, believe that was some kind of first step in a coup d’etat, and I’m telling you it wasn’t,” Cleaver said after the 90-minute closed-door session. “I think the loss can be described as earthshaking. It would be folly to follow that Nov. 8 election with business as usual.”
Party leaders and Pelosi allies said that she would easily be reelected despite the delay, and they tried to spin the postponement as a good sign.
“I think it’s healthy,” insisted Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) “I think we’re going to talk. I think that’s appropriate. I don’t think it’s going to make any substantial difference on the [leadership] elections … but I think that it is absolutely important for members to feel they’ve got an opportunity to express their opinions.”
“I think the caucus writ large thinks that she should remain,” added Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Look, she’s done an extraordinary job as our leader, and I think will continue to do so.”
But other Democrats want more time to review the situation, and they could seek concessions from Pelosi to get their vote. For instance, they may ask to have the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairmanship be an elected instead of leader-appointed position. Or they may seek more representation for junior members in leadership.
Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and more than 30 other Democrats have been pushing for the delay since the weekend. Leaders of the group met at a Capitol Hill Italian restaurant Monday night to hash out their strategy.
Moulton, who was one of the leaders of the group seeking a delay, would not say whether he backs Pelosi, calling it part of an “internal conversation.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said: “We don’t want to rush a vote to leadership for them to think everything is business as usual. Everything’s not good. Business as usual is no longer going to work. And if we have the same leadership, as long as they understand what the purpose of their leadership is and where it’s coming from and what it’s supposed to do, I think a lot of us would feel more comfortable.”
The Congressional Black Caucus also backed the delay after internal discussions on Monday night, and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) sent his own letter to Pelosi seeking a postponement.
“It was a consensus after considerable debate,” CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said when asked whether this was a concession by Pelosi.
There remains enormous personal support and respect for Pelosi. Each cycle, she raises tens of millions of dollars for her colleagues and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She has doled out committee seats to them and helped them move bills. She knows their spouses and their families, the makeup of their districts and what they have to do to keep their seats.
“I think we’re having two parallel conversations: soul-searching on where the party goes from here in light of the fact that we lost the White House, don’t control the U.S. House, don’t control the U.S. Senate, and they have the vast majority of governorships and statehouses,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). “So rushing to a leadership vote is something that is a bit off topic at the moment.”
“Right now, there’s only one candidate running, and I fully intend to support Nancy Pelosi’s leadership,” Boyle added.
Ryan did not speak at Tuesday’s session. He was originally part of the group calling for a delay in the leadership elections, but he dropped out when he began to be mentioned as a potential Pelosi challenger.
“I think that was a big first step, and now we’re going to have a longer conversation,” Ryan said, declining to say whether he will run against Pelosi.
Pelosi is still likely to beat back any challenge, and she’s reaching out to members in other ways to try to quell the discontent. All members have been invited to an “after-election review” Wednesday, hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at Pelosi’s request.
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