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Roll Call

Moderates Unsure About Pelosi Keeping the Gavel

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Moderate Democrats believe they will have a stronger hand in negotiations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi if the party maintains the majority in the House next year, but it is unclear whether anyone would challenge her for the gavel.

Nancy Pelosi’s support among moderate Democrats appears to be eroding, with more than a handful refusing to commit to supporting her for Speaker next year.

The list includes Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Jim Marshall (Ga.), Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Walt Minnick (Idaho), who recently declined to publicly support Pelosi for another two-year term. Roughly a half-dozen other moderate Democrats also demurred when asked whether they would vote to let Pelosi keep the gavel.

Moderates in tough races have been distancing themselves from the liberal Democratic leader in recent weeks, even running ads touting their independence from Pelosi and President Barack Obama. Pelosi has served as Speaker since 2007, and assuming Democrats retain the House on Nov. 2, is expected to stand for another two years in the job.

“I would prefer a conservative Democrat, a Blue Dog Democrat like myself,” said Bright, who is a freshman. “If that doesn’t happen, then I will vote for who I think will allow me to represent my constituents the best.”

Bright is among the moderates who are keeping their distance from leadership. He quipped during the August recess that Pelosi could get sick and die before the next Congress. He later said the comment was taken out of context. “I can foresee a scenario where we could team up with Republicans to get a more conservative Democrat” for Speaker, he said. “I can see that very easily if the Republicans are willing to work with us.”

When asked about Pelosi’s support among moderates, spokesman Nadeam Elshami would only say: “As the Speaker has said in the past, we will not yield one grain of sand this election and Democrats will be in the majority.”

If Democrats keep control of the chamber, they may have a much more narrow majority, and moderates think they will have more leverage to pressure Pelosi toward the middle. Although unlikely, moderates could team up with Republicans and create enough of a coalition to oppose Pelosi for Speaker and nominate someone else when the House reorganizes next year.

Vulnerable Members from conservative-leaning districts would rather “not have to answer the Pelosi question,” a former Blue Dog Coalition aide said.

Pelosi has long held a powerful grip on her Caucus, but her influence has taken a hit in recent months, particularly as Democratic prospects for November have worsened. Even so, no Democrat has talked about challenging her.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), who ran against Pelosi for Whip in 2001 when Democrats were still in the minority, has not shown any interest in a challenge, and Democrats close to him insist he would not do it.

In a statement Friday, Hoyer said: “Democrats will keep the House in November, Speaker Pelosi will be elected Speaker, and I will continue to serve as Majority Leader.”

Earlier this year, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) tried to recruit Minnick to help him draft Hoyer to run for Speaker if Democrats maintained the majority by a few seats. At the time, Minnick declined to discuss the matter, but he also refused to commit to voting for Pelosi if Democrats keep control.

“I want to see who’s in the majority and who the candidates are before I comment on the leadership,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t know who’s going to run, and I don’t know which party is going to be in control. So until after the election that gets clarified, I don’t want to comment on who I am going to vote for.”

For his part, Marshall — who bucks his party on major legislation — said he would prefer more moderate leadership.

“Who I vote for will depend on who is running and best reflects and advances the interests of my district,” he said. “It’s truly unfortunate that Speaker Pelosi has become a lightning rod, which makes it difficult for Democrats.”

Former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a Blue Dog Coalition founder and Hoyer ally, said he would also prefer a more centrist leader next Congress.

“If I were there, I first off would want to see if the Speaker intends to change the direction she has led the caucus,” the Texas Democrat said. “Obviously, if not, then you take it the rest of the way.”

Taylor, who nominated the late Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) instead of Pelosi to lead the Democrats, said he “would prefer to see Ike Skelton as Speaker.” But Taylor said he had not spoken to the Missouri Democrat about his preference. Skelton is facing a tough re-election fight this year.

The disaffection among some Democrats for Pelosi may wane after the elections. But with six weeks until Election Day, some vulnerable Democrats would rather have some space from leadership.

Rep. Zack Space, a sophomore who is running for re-election in Ohio, said it would be premature to commit to voting for the next Speaker.

“It’s inappropriate to commit because we don’t know who’s going to be running, whether she’s going to be running, whether she’s going to have opposition,” he said.

Rep. Chet Edwards (Texas), whom Pelosi touted as a potential vice presidential nominee just two years ago, has also distanced himself from the Speaker. The Blue Dog Democrat — who is in a tough bid to win an 11th term and is running ads touting his differences with Pelosi — recently told the Washington Post he had not made up his mind whether he would support the California Democrat in the 112th Congress.

Not all moderates are turning away. Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), who secured the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee with the support of Pelosi, said he would support her. Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) also said he was definitely committed to letting Pelosi keep the gavel.

Not a single Democrat voted against Pelosi for Speaker in 2009 or 2007.

One moderate Democratic Member said Pelosi’s leadership had moved the Democratic Caucus “too far too fast” and that Democrats needed to moderate and focus on bipartisanship in the 112th Congress so they are “tailoring legislation that most of the American public can swallow.”

“I would prefer to see someone — whether it’s the Speaker now or a new Speaker — who takes a more moderate posture,” the Democrat said, adding that whether there would be a push to replace Pelosi “may depend on what happens in November.”

Right now, moderates aren’t talking about fielding another candidate, the lawmaker said, adding, “There are rumblings and rumors, but nothing concrete you can put your finger on.”

Another centrist Democrat predicted a push to install Hoyer as the top Democrat if Republicans win control.

“If we retain the majority then, I am voting for her,” the lawmaker said. “But if we don’t, if we fall short, then I think there are some of us who are definitely going to be looking at somebody else. Of course, my choice would be Steny.”

If Democrats hang on, the Member predicted moderates would go to Pelosi to make the case that she needs to move to the center.

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