Nancy Pelosi is poised to take back the House speaker’s gavel with the new Democratic majority, rebounding as the face of her party in a political “year of the woman” as a rebellion among younger Democrats lacks any real leaders.
This time, Pelosi is signaling publicly she’s ready to serve a “transitional” speaker to lay the groundwork for future leaders, although she hasn’t said how long she will stick around.
Pelosi, 78 -- long disparaged by Republicans as a polarizing symbol -- is the only woman to serve as House speaker, for four years starting in 2007. Known for her unparalleled fundraising prowess and ability to keep her caucus together for crucial votes, she played a major role in enacting Obamacare, only to lose the gavel and become minority leader in 2011. The Italian-American daughter and sister of former Baltimore mayors has represented a safely Democratic San Francisco-based House district since 1987.
Now she and Democrats will control one of two chambers in Congress, with deal-making power and legislative expertise to serve as a check on Republican President Donald Trump’s agenda, while potential Democratic presidential contenders try to get traction heading into 2020.
Trump and Republicans had attacked Pelosi’s leadership during the campaign and some Democrats vowed not to support her for speaker. But Trump took another approach in a morning tweet Wednesday: “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!”
Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill replied on Twitter Wednesday: “Leader Pelosi is confident in her support among Members and Members-elect. We appreciate the President’s enthusiasm for a House Democratic Majority.”
At a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee event in Washington Tuesday night, a crowd chanted "Speaker! Speaker!" as Pelosi delivered remarks. Pelosi said Democrats will strive for bipartisanship but when they can’t find “common ground” they would “stand our ground.”
Trump called Pelosi before midnight to congratulate her, and acknowledged her call for lawmakers from both parties to work together, according to a tweet by Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill.
There will be some Democratic resistance to Pelosi’s return to power in a year when a record number of women were elected to the House. Backing Pelosi for speaker in January could be complicated for some freshman House Democrats who said during their campaigns that they wouldn’t back her to lead the House.
Newly elected and returning Democrats will meet privately after Thanksgiving to sort it out, and the vote-counting to succeed retiring Republican Speaker Paul Ryan could get complex for Pelosi if alternative candidates mount an unexpectedly serious challenge. No viable challenger has emerged.
When the full House convenes Jan. 3 for the speaker vote, Pelosi will need at least 218 Democrats’ support, assuming all 435 members participate and all Republicans vote against her.
Freshmen Democrats don’t have the numbers to elect one of their own -- which would be a unlikely political occurrence.
New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who during the campaign said she wouldn’t back Pelosi for speaker, told reporters after winning a seat previously held by a Republican, that she is "excited to see who comes forward." She also declined to back any specific other candidate.
"Part of the problem is we have no bench," says Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia.
"I am not being negative about anyone. What I mean is the bench has sort of emptied out," Connolly said in reference to former House Democrats who waited for Pelosi to step aside but eventually moved on to other elected offices, lost elections or left politics.
A big advantage for Pelosi is that the current No. 2 and No. 3 House Democrats, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina, are also in their late 70s. Hoyer, who in particular has coveted the top spot, is running instead for majority leader.
Pelosi also has the luxury of built-in support from the large California Democratic delegation and broad backing from other returning House members, many of whom have benefited from her massive fundraising over the years.
There is simply no "Plan B," according to Connolly and others.
One of the most important, unavoidable questions for a Pelosi-led House will be the question of whether to begin hearings on a possible impeachment of Trump. Outside groups, including billionaire Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach movement, argue that the president has already committed offenses that meet the constitutional threshold for impeachment.
Pelosi has rejected this strategy and said during the campaign that calls from some Democrats for impeachment were “a gift to Republicans” that would anger and arouse the GOP voter base.
Yet she hasn’t completely ruled out starting the process to remove Trump from office -- perhaps depending on the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Pelosi has made it clear that she wants to pursue policy objectives to build a case for further electoral victories in 2020, rather than seeking impeachment for political reasons.
Pelosi told the New York Times last week that House Democrats plan to start with an overhaul of campaign and ethics laws, followed by a infrastructure proposal that could tempt Trump to make a deal on one of his most universally liked campaign pledges. Significant investments in infrastructure didn’t get off the ground because Republican leaders were unwilling to spend federal money.
Pelosi said Democrats will pursue their own proposals to control rising drug prices -- another Trump promise that is broadly popular. Addressing climate change and environmental protection will be on the agenda, Pelosi said, because of the urgent need for action and because it would put Republicans on the defensive in many swing districts.
The challenge for Pelosi, who has a legendary ability to keep her members in line, will be to balance the moderate platform some swing-district Democrats used to oust incumbent Republicans with an increasingly strident left wing. With some new members promising Medicare for all Americans, overhauling immigration enforcement and raising the federal minimum wage, a Democratic speaker must keep those members from becoming an obstructionist bloc like the far-right Freedom Caucus in the GOP.
For the GOP, soon to be in the minority, the familiar conservative squabbles will be the most immediate problem for the No. 2 Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. Formerly viewed as the leading candidate to succeed Ryan as speaker, now he must build support to become minority leader.
The loss of McCarthy’s path to the speakership continues what has been a sort of curse for House majority leaders. Only one of Mc¬Carthy’s seven predecessors in the No. 2 lead¬er¬ship position -- John Boehner -- has gone on to become speaker, and he served four years as minority leader first.
McCarthy, 53, has one declared challenger for minority leader, conservative Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, 54, though others could emerge. Steve Scalise, 53, the No. 3 House Republican, from Louisiana, deferred to McCarthy as the would-be speaker, but might try for the top minority role.
Some conservatives haven’t ruled out pushing Scalise or Jordan to run, but say they’re pessimistic that McCarthy can be beaten even though he’s a majority leader who lost the majority.
Republicans may choose their leaders as early as next week in closed-door voting.