Pelosi eyes Speaker's gavel while facing House Democratic insurgency

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Pelosi says she's confident she will win enough support to be elected speaker of the House next year and that she is the best person for the job. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who became the first female Speaker of the House in 2006, Nancy Pelosi, has substantial backing from her Democratic colleagues and a strong record as a party leader and fundraiser but her bid to reclaim the speakership is not guaranteed.

Democrats are projected to hold 229 seats, and Pelosi needs 218 votes to secure the position as speaker. In the coming weeks, the 16-term congresswoman from San Francisco will have to win over a faction of incumbent Democrats seeking a new generation of leaders as well as newly elected candidates who campaigned against her before she reclaims the gavel.

Shortly after securing the House majority, Pelosi sent a letter to members of the House announcing her candidacy for speaker. The letter read in part: "My vision for the next two years is to restore the House to the role it should have as a strong and independent voice for the American people, and maximize the ability and the creativity of our entire caucus," she wrote. "In that spirit, I am writing to respectfully request your support for Speaker, and do so with confidence and humility."

Democrats are currently scheduled to select their leadership the week after Thanksgiving. The incoming Congress will cast the deciding vote on the new speaker of the House in January.

After they were dealt a withering election defeat in 2016, roughly one-third of the House Democratic Conference voted to oust Pelosi and bring in new leadership. Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents a blue-collar district in Ohio, mounted a long-shot challenge and got 63 votes to her 134 in a secret ballot.

Ryan did not rule out the possibility of challenging Pelosi in January. In a Thursday interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Ryan said he was still committed to seeing new Democratic leadership, particularly with a number of incoming freshman members of Congress who campaigned against Pelosi and won seats in conservative districts.

"I think asking new members who just campaigned for new leadership to come in and cast a vote for the status quo, that's not why they got elected. And I think that jeopardizes the future of our majority going into 2020," Ryan warned.

In late August, NBC published a list of 47 Democratic candidates who said on the campaign trail that they would not support Pelosi for speaker. Twelve of those candidates won their elections Tuesday including Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose in New York, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Jeff Van Drew and Andy Kim in New Jersey, and Elissa Slotkin, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaid of Michigan.

There is also a faction of incumbent Democrats who voted against Pelosi's bid to be the House minority leader in 2016 and have spoken out in favor of new leadership in 2018.

According to reports, a group of Pelosi detractors held a 90-minute conference call where at least 12 members committed to a "no" vote against Pelosi. "If we get 229 [seats], she will never get 218," Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, told CNN.

Even with a mounting insurgency within the party, no one else has stepped forward to fill the position as speaker. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio has recommended Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina take the gavel, giving the country the first African-American speaker. Clyburn has so far declined.

Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton, David Helfenbein noted that Pelosi may not have 218 votes now, but there is no one else in the party who has the qualifications or the ability to rally the votes. "Democrats need someone who's experienced because this is a really tough, acrimonious, polarized political climate and you can't have someone who is inexperienced as a party leader take the reins right now," he said. "These two years will be incredibly difficult for governance and probably the safest, strongest bet is to have Nancy Pelosi in there."

Pelosi got an unusual endorsement this week when President Donald Trump sent a postelection tweet that read, "In all fairness, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be chosen Speaker of the House by the Democrats. If they give her a hard time, perhaps we will add some Republican votes. She has earned this great honor!"

It was an unlikely compliment from the president who spent months on the campaign trail demonizing Pelosi and linking his liberal opponents to the Democratic figurehead. It would be highly unusual to see Republican members of Congress vote for a Democratic speaker but not impossible, considering the political traction President Trump and some congressional Republicans believe they can get campaigning against a Pelosi-led Democratic Party.

In 2018, numerous GOP candidates featured Pelosi in attack ads and she was a favorite political target in President Trump's campaign speeches. If Pelosi does take the gavel in the 116th Congress, Republicans will have an obvious target for their 2020 congressional and presidential campaigns.

"She certainly does galvanize a lot of Republican spirit to go vote," said Michael Abramson, an adviser with the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.

The last time Pelosi was speaker was 2010 and Republicans are still, eight years later, campaigning against her. "I would think they would be pleased to see her become speaker again because they have already spent so much time —not just this campaign but over the years—going after her. The groundwork is laid and the polls reflect that."

According to CNN exit polls, more than half of voters had an unfavorable view of Pelosi, a higher disapproval rating than President Trump.

Among Democrats, Pelosi has a roughly 58 percent approval rating, according to a recent ScottRasmussen.com poll. Republican voters have a predictably high 75 percent disapproval rating of the Democratic leader.

At a Wednesday press conference, Pelosi responded confidently to the president's endorsement. "I don't think anybody deserves anything. It's not about what you have done, it's what you can do," she said, continuing, "I think I’m the best person to go forward to unify, to negotiate."

Pelosi also appealed to the spirit of bipartisanship saying she would work with the Republican majority in the Senate and President Trump to make progress on shared legislative objectives, like reducing the cost of prescription drugs and building infrastructure. She also pledged to support the Democratic majority exercising aggressive oversight of the Trump administration, one of the primary reasons voters sent so many Democrats to Washington.

"The voters who selected her for that role and supported her candidates want aggressive action against the president," explained Joshua Goodman, a progressive political consultant and Democratic activist. "I hope she remembers that."

Rather than trying to cut deals with President Trump, who has proven unreliable in past bipartisan negotiations, Pelosi's first priority should be holding the Trump administration accountable and aggressively pushing the Democratic agenda through the House, Goodman said. "The Democratic majority in the House could easily disappear if they hold their breath waiting for the president to work with them."

He encouraged Pelosi to take a page from GOP playbook. When they controlled the House in 2010, they voted more than 30 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act knowing it wouldn't pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Barack Obama. "They did it to show their voters, we're listening to you. That's what the House needs to do under Pelosi," he said. "People need to have a reason to vote for Democrats."

It will be a careful balancing act for Pelosi and the incoming Democratic majority, between opposing the president and working to pass legislation. on Wednesday, President Trump offered an ultimatum, saying Democrats could either investigate him or work with him. "You can't do them simultaneously," he argued.

The 116th Congress includes more than a dozen new members who successfully flipped seats in conservative districts where candidates largely avoided campaigning directly against Trump. Meanwhile, some incoming committee chairmen have promised to use their oversight authority to investigate the Trump administration and a small faction of House Democrats have called to impeach the president. Pelosi has said she does not anticipate any "scattershot freelancing" by her Democratic colleagues and has avoided discussing the removal of President Trump.

The 2018 midterms also revealed a Democratic Party that was younger and more diverse than its leadership in Congress. Most members occupying leadership positions on committees are older and whiter than the electorate and the average age of the highest-ranking Democratic leadership in the House was above 76-years old in 2016.

The party received a wake-up call on this front earlier this year when the former chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York was defeated in his primary by first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The self-described democratic socialist won her election Tuesday and will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

At that time, many Democrats and progressives began to reconsider the demographics of the leadership. "I think it's time for a generational shift," said Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, the current vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

Helfenbein said he is sympathetic to members of the caucus who want to see new leadership but changing the guard is not so simple. "There are definitely opportunities that a speaker and Democratic leadership has to provide some of the new members a voice in Congress and a position in power, especially some of the new women and minority candidates," he said.

At a Wednesday press conference, Pelosi stated that the party's newcomers would play a role in setting the agenda of the 116th Congress.

The Democrats are expected to finalize their leadership selection by the end of November. Republicans will select their minority leadership next week. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, will be challenging the current House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for the position of minority leader.

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