Basking in House Democrats’ midterm election wins, Nancy Pelosi is focused on the planks of the Democratic campaign platform that will become the new majority’s agenda: health care, infrastructure and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
But the California Democrat cannot escape questions about another theme that emerged on the campaign trail — opposition to her leadership.
Pelosi, 78, has held the top Democratic leadership position for the past 16 years, serving four of those as the first female speaker. She’s proved her skills as a legislator and a leader who can corral votes, most notably with her efforts to pass the 2010 health care law.
But the Democratic Caucus is hungry for change. Calls increased this cycle from Democratic incumbents and candidates asking for a new generation of leaders, with some explicitly stating they wouldn’t support Pelosi for speaker.
Watch: New Members Could Spell Trouble for Pelosi’s Speaker Bid
Still, over the past few months Pelosi has repeatedly expressed confidence she’ll win the gavel. She did so again the day after the election when confronted with the question during a victory lap news conference at the Capitol. But she said she didn’t want to answer questions about the speaker’s race, saying she’d rather talk about Democrats’ policy priorities.
Pelosi did, however, opt to address President Donald Trump’s comment that she deserves to be speaker.
“I don’t think anybody deserves anything,” she said. “It’s not about what you have done. It’s about what you can do.”
Perhaps that explains why Pelosi suddenly wanted to stop touting herself as a “master legislator” — a phrase she used often before the election — and formidable fundraiser and instead talk about her plans to deliver on Democrats’ election promises.
And she did so at length.
“Democrats pledge, again, a new majority, our ‘For the People’ agenda, lower health care costs, lower prescription drugs, bigger paychecks, building infrastructure, clean up corruption to make America work for the American people’s interest, not the special interests,” Pelosi said on Nov. 7. “Yesterday’s election was not only a vote to protect America’s health care. It was a vote to restore the health of our democracy.”
But before House Democrats can begin working on legislation to fulfill that agenda, they have to elect their leadership team, which involves determining whether Pelosi should continue to lead the party.
The best thing Pelosi has going for her in the speaker’s race is that no one has stepped up to run against her or signaled that they will.
The speaker sets the majority party’s agenda and controls the floor schedule. The gavel holder is also the lead negotiator for the House in matters involving the Senate and the White House.
Pelosi has said she’s proven her chops in those areas, particularly holding her own in negotiations at a table where she’s surrounded by men. Wanting a woman to be involved in those negotiations is one of the main reasons Pelosi is even still in Congress running for speaker; she had planned to retire if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential race.
That stinging 2016 loss is what in part created the environment for Democratic incumbents and candidates to increase their calls for a new generation of party leaders.
But despite all that talk on the campaign trail, only one of the top three septuagenarian leaders is facing a challenge. Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette is running against South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, the No. 3, for majority whip.
The No. 2, Maryland’s Steny H. Hoyer, is running for majority leader unopposed. But there are several contested races for positions below the top three — assistant leader, Democratic Caucus chair and vice chair and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair.
All the leadership races, except for speaker, can be won with a simple majority vote by the caucus. Pelosi, who could best any of her colleagues in a head-to-head caucus matchup, faces a more precarious position when it comes to securing the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker on the floor.
Of the known newly elected Democrats or those who will be voting in a leadership election for the first time, only 11 have said they won’t support Pelosi for speaker. And only three of them — Conor Lamb from Pennsylvania’s 17th District, Jason Crow from Colorado’s 6th District and Abigail Spanberger from Virginia’s 7th District — have specified that their opposition will extend to the floor vote.
Democrats will hold a minimum of 227 seats next Congress. Of the 10 House races yet to be called Monday morning, Democrats were leading in four.
If they ultimately were to win those seats and none of the eight trending toward Republicans at publication time, Pelosi would have a cushion of only 12 votes unless some Democrats opt to vote present, which would reduce the majority threshold she’d need to reach.
Some Democratic incumbents such as Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind are unlikely to vote for Pelosi on the floor either, adding to the obstacles she must overcome to secure the gavel.
‘For the People’
Another thing Pelosi has going for her bid is the ambitious policy agenda she helped Democrats craft heading into the 2018 cycle. Democrats’ eagerness to start passing those bills will reduce their appetite for a nasty intraparty fight over the speakership.
The speaker sets the majority party’s agenda — and Democratic candidates have seemed to embrace the “For the People” agenda Pelosi and her leadership team crafted. The top three goals they campaigned on are lowering health care costs and prescription drug prices, increasing pay and driving economic growth by rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
Pelosi talked about following through on those promises in letters she sent to colleagues asking for their support for her speaker bid, throwing in a line that suggested Democrats should unify over that agenda and their plans to open up the legislative process rather than fight over the speakership.
“We must show on the first day of the 116th Congress that we are prepared to get the job done for the American people,” she wrote.
“Our opening day rule must assert a new Congress of transparency, bipartisanship and unity,” she added. “We will seek not the lowest, but the boldest common denominator. We must honor the guidance of our Founders: E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. As we debate our differences, we must work to unite, not divide our country further.”
Pelosi said her vision for the 116th Congress is to restore the House’s role “as a strong and independent voice for the American people, and maximize the ability and the creativity of our entire Caucus.”
“In that spirit, I am writing to respectfully request your support for Speaker, and do so with confidence and humility,” she said.
Pelosi and other Democrats have said the first legislative item out of the gate will be a government overhaul package comprising changes to campaign finance, ethics and voting rights laws. Extensive oversight of the Trump administration will also begin quickly.
Democrats will likely face an internal debate about how far to go in their oversight efforts, with some members already talking about impeaching Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. But Pelosi has promised they will be measured and deliberate in their efforts to serve as a check on the Trump administration.
“I don’t think we’ll have any scattershot freelancing in terms of this,” she said. “When we go down any of these paths, we’ll know what we’re doing and we’ll do it right.”
Health care was the top issue for Democrats on the campaign trail. They hammered House Republicans for passing legislation that would’ve opened the door for states to gut protections for pre-existing health conditions.
But Democratic candidates were divided about how best to shore up the health care system for the future.
Some want to strengthen the health care law and add a public insurance option to compete with private-sector plans, while others want to allow everyone to join the government’s program for seniors, Medicare.
Without willing partners in the Senate or White House to increase federal control of the health care system, they could pass smaller changes to the health care law and pursue legislation to lower prescription drug prices, something Trump and Republicans have also expressed interest in doing.
Infrastructure is another area with bipartisan potential, as evidenced by its mention in congratulatory calls Pelosi received from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Pelosi and McConnell have long worked together as the leaders of their respective conferences.
After the election, McConnell noted their history goes back many years before that.
“She and I actually have had some — an opportunity to work together for a number of years when we were both on the Appropriations Committee,” McConnell said. “She had the Foreign Operations Subcommittee and so did I, and so we’re not unfamiliar with each other.”
But big differences remain on how to pay for federal investments in infrastructure — not to mention that Democrats want to spend more federal government dollars than Republicans, who prefer to rely more heavily on private-sector investment.
Other Democratic policy priorities include providing a path to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. when they were children; strengthening background checks for gun purchases; rolling back the GOP tax cuts for corporations and high-income individuals; and enacting renewable, green energy policy changes.
The vast majority of the House Democrats’ agenda is unlikely to be signed into law, but their legislative efforts will offer Democrats a platform to show the public what they could accomplish if voters reward them with the Senate and the White House in 2020.