Democrats won the majority. Now they just need a speaker of the House.
The standoff over Nancy Pelosi’s bid to regain the gavel intensified as Democrats left Washington for the Thanksgiving break in what has turned out to be an unsettling finish to an otherwise triumphant week that saw them welcome a historic class of newcomers to Capitol Hill and prepare to take control from Republicans.
Pelosi, speaker from 2007 to 2011 and the first woman to hold that job, was certain she will hold it again. Her foes were equally confident they have the votes to stop her ascension. And now President Donald Trump is getting into the fray, offering Saturday to provide Republican votes for Pelosi’s candidacy even though the GOP has long used the California Democrat as an election target.
For now, it’s a band of disgruntled Democrats, led mostly by men, in the forefront of the opposition. With a test vote looming in late November, and at least one potential Pelosi challenger stepping forward, Democrats are facing the uncomfortable prospect of the internal squabble that the speaker’s vote Jan. 3 could drag on for weeks.
“I think chaos is good if it’s productive. I think chaos is bad if it is too disruptive and it divides us too much,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose leaders were upbeat after meeting with Pelosi this past week.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Jayapal said. “We need to put forward the vision of who we are as a party and what we’re fighting for and so that needs to happen very, very quickly.”
Pelosi was expected to work the phones from California after meeting privately Friday with newly elected Democrats who could be crucial to her bid.
Those incoming lawmakers indicated they were having good meetings with the leader, though few said the talks had changed their minds.
Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger of Virginia said she had a “wonderful conversation” about her district’s priorities, but “will not be voting” for Pelosi.
“It isn’t about her, it’s about wanting new leadership,” said Spanberger, a former CIA operative who defeated tea party Republican Rep. Dave Brat in suburban Richmond. “There isn’t anything she could say, because the decision isn’t about her.”
Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey said he had a “pleasant” meeting, but remains a “no” on Pelosi. He is among 17 Democrats who have signed on to a letter opposing her. Van Drew said they discussed his districts and which committees he’d like to serve on. “I don’t feel under pressure,” he said.
Pelosi also met for 45 minutes with Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a potential rival for the speakership who said the two had “a very open and frank discussion,” including about “the feeling in the caucus of people who are feeling left out and left behind.”
Fudge said she would probably decide after Thanksgiving break whether she will run.
“To her credit, she wanted to know what my concerns were,” Fudge said. “What she asked me was, basically, how we could get to a point where I’m supportive.”
One question for some Democrats is what, exactly, Pelosi means when she says she intends to be a transitional leader, a bridge to a new generation. She has led the party for 15 years.
“We talked about some succession planning,” Fudge said. “I think it is something our caucus is interested in knowing.”
If it were up to most of the Democratic Party, Pelosi easily would win. They see her as a skilled and tested leader prepared to confront Trump and deliver on priorities.
Pelosi, 78, first became speaker after Democrats took control of the House in midterm elections during former President George W. Bush’s second term. With President Barack Obama, she was pivotal in passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
She appears to be winning the outside game in her bid, amassing endorsements from a who’s who of the nation’s Democrats. Inside the Capitol she has support from influential lawmakers such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and backing from some of the incoming House members.
The internal debate is spilling out nationally, especially on social media, where Democratic activists are publicly criticizing Democratic Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio and others leading the campaign to oust Pelosi.
It’s not lost on supporters that a group made up of mostly men is leading the effort. On the list of 17 names who’ve signed onto a letter against her, just three are women.
With a narrow Democratic majority, now at 231 seats in the 435-member House, Pelosi does not have much cushion to secure the 218 votes needed, assuming all Republicans vote against her, as expected. Some House races remain undecided and the Democratic majority could grow slightly.
There is a chance the math could shift in Pelosi’s favor if lawmakers are absent or simply vote “present,” meaning she would need fewer than 218 votes for an absolute majority.
Trump, trying to insert himself into the race, tweeted on Saturday that he could get Pelosi “as many votes as she wants” to become speaker. “She deserves this victory, she has earned it - but there are those in her party who are trying to take it away. She will win!”
Trump included the twitter link for Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who has said he could be open to backing Pelosi if she committed to changes that would shift some power from the House leadership.
Trump’s latest postelection praise of Pelosi raises questions about his sincerity, given the Republicans’ election playbook of trying to tie Democrats in competitive congressional districts to Pelosi every chance they can. GOP lawmakers considering endorsing Pelosi would open themselves up to a potential primary challenges in 2020 for daring to support someone their base has reviled.