Stalled House Democrats Ponder Their Path Forward

Despite pressure, Pelosi will likely keep her post, even as party members look for wholesale change at the DNC.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 11.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Nov. 15, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Demo­crats’ search for a new dir­ec­tion is play­ing out in very dif­fer­ent ways in two build­ings a few blocks apart on Cap­it­ol Hill.

In the House, Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi agreed Tues­day to delay elec­tions for her­self and the rest of the lead­er­ship slate un­til late Novem­ber as her caucus grapples with last week’s dev­ast­at­ing elec­tion.

She faces a po­ten­tial chal­lenge from Rep. Tim Ry­an of Ohio but is widely ex­pec­ted to keep her post. And in the Sen­ate, lead­er-in-wait­ing Chuck Schu­mer will take over the party’s top spot without com­plaint.

In the nearby Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee headquar­ters, a sep­ar­ate and more wide-open de­bate is un­der way. Rep. Keith El­lis­on, who form­ally an­nounced his bid Monday, is among a suite of can­did­ates.

The po­ten­tial chal­lenge to Pelosi from a white, ideo­lo­gic­ally con­ven­tion­al Demo­crat who backed Hil­lary Clin­ton in the primary stands in con­trast with the strong can­did­acy of El­lis­on—an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Muslim who co­chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus—to lead the DNC.

El­lis­on—who backed Bernie Sanders in the Demo­crat­ic primary—rep­res­ents a whole­sale change at the DNC and his vic­tory would be a ma­jor win for the Sanders wing of the party. And in a sign of their power in the de­feated party after the es­tab­lish­ment’s White House loss, he has amassed quick sup­port from Harry Re­id and Schu­mer, who are the Sen­ate Demo­crats’ cur­rent and in­com­ing lead­ers, re­spect­ively.

Oth­er po­ten­tial DNC heads in­clude South Car­o­lina party chair­man Jaime Har­ris­on and former DNC chair Howard Dean.

In the House, sev­er­al mem­bers said Pelosi’s agree­ment Tues­day to delay lead­er­ship elec­tions will al­low time for a “con­ver­sa­tion” about what’s next for the caucus.

Even if Pelosi is ex­pec­ted to keep her post, the delay sig­nals real heart­burn in the caucus about how to re­spond to an elec­tion that swept Trump in­to power and saw far few­er House gains than Demo­crats had hoped.

A big fo­cus, for Ry­an and oth­er Demo­crats, is on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s show­ing among work­ing-class white voters.

“Now we are go­ing to have a longer con­ver­sa­tion, and it I think it is an im­port­ant con­ver­sa­tion we need to have. We saw what happened in Ohio, Michigan, Wis­con­sin, and those are the kinds of voters we are go­ing to need to take the ma­jor­ity back,” Ry­an said.

The de­cision to wait un­til Nov. 30 was a win for a group of more than two dozen law­makers led by Rep. Seth Moulton, a first-term Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat.

“House Demo­crats have two crit­ic­al tasks in the weeks ahead. One is to stand up for the prin­ciples and val­ues that we share as Amer­ic­ans and that Don­ald Trump may well threaten every single day,” Moulton told re­port­ers in the Cap­it­ol. “And the second is to put ourselves in the best pos­sible po­s­i­tion that we can to take back the House in 2018. And hav­ing this delay in lead­er­ship elec­tions will al­low us to start that in­tern­al con­ver­sa­tion so that we can pre­pare ourselves for those two tasks.”

However, some law­makers em­phas­ized that the delay is about as­sess­ing where the caucus needs to go, as op­posed to an in­sur­gency against Pelosi, who likely has enough sup­port to re­main Demo­crat­ic lead­er. In one sign of that back­ing, sev­er­al dozen House Demo­crat­ic wo­men re­cently urged Pelosi to re­main the party’s House lead­er.

Rep. G.K. But­ter­field, the chair­man of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, said Pelosi has “great re­spect and sup­port” among Demo­crats and that the delay is “no re­flec­tion on her lead­er­ship at all.”

Asked why there’s a delay, he replied: “Be­cause we just got a shel­lack­ing last Tues­day, an un­ex­pec­ted de­feat, and we have got to re­cal­ib­rate and de­cide how we go for­ward.” He said he planned to vote for Pelosi.

And Pelosi told col­leagues that she was “ag­nost­ic” on the elec­tion tim­ing, and in fact had earli­er planned on hav­ing the elec­tions after Thanks­giv­ing be­fore set­tling on this week when some mem­bers wondered if she was “delay­ing” the pro­cess, ac­cord­ing to an aide in the room.

For now, there’s plenty of ab­stract talk about mes­sage and strategy. For in­stance, Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said Demo­crats “need to make sure that we fo­cus like a laser on jobs.” But it’s less clear what spe­cif­ic steps Demo­crat­ic lead­ers might take.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ports that “Hoy­er said the con­ver­sa­tion will likely in­clude ser­i­ous de­bate about mak­ing changes to com­mit­tee lead­er­ship.” One old idea again per­col­at­ing is giv­ing a broad­er group of mem­bers a chance for power by cre­at­ing term lim­its on how long a law­maker can be the rank­ing mem­ber of a com­mit­tee.

“There are a num­ber of mem­bers who want to talk about term lim­its for rank­ing-mem­ber po­s­i­tions,” a Demo­crat­ic aide said. However, the idea has faced res­ist­ance from the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus in the past.

In the House and bey­ond, the party is smart­ing from Clin­ton’s un­ex­pec­ted losses in the Rust Belt.

It’s a re­gion that’s not rep­res­en­ted in the House Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship, which is made up of law­makers from Cali­for­nia, Mary­land, New York, and South Car­o­lina. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who signed the re­cent let­ter back­ing Pelosi, said Tues­day that she would con­sider sup­port­ing a chal­lenger to Pelosi, Bloomberg re­ports.

“If someone from our re­gion entered the race, I would have to re­con­sider,” she said.

Ry­an, the sev­en-term Ohio law­maker, would not tip his hand about wheth­er he will chal­lenge Pelosi, who has led House Demo­crats as speak­er or minor­ity lead­er for more than a dec­ade.

“I ab­so­lutely love her. I think she is amaz­ing. She has more en­ergy than half the caucus all put to­geth­er,” Ry­an said.

“This is about the next elec­tion. What do the lead­ers look like, what does the mes­sage sound like, in or­der for us to pick up the seats that we need to pick up to get back in the ma­jor­ity? To me it is not about last time. I think it would be very hard, in a pres­id­en­tial year, to pin this on Nancy Pelosi,” he said.

Ry­an said Demo­crats need to weigh “who is the lead­er that can go in­to those South­ern states, who is the lead­er that can go in­to the Mid­west­ern states and be­gin to pull those voters back.”

But some mem­bers are push­ing back against the idea that Hill Demo­crats’ mes­sage or strategy was a prob­lem in the elec­tion.

“The mes­sage-de­liv­ery sys­tem is Obama and Clin­ton. Come on,” said Rep. Brad Sher­man. “If Chuck Schu­mer had giv­en a speech call­ing for us to de­clare war on Peru, you guys wouldn’t have covered it.”

Still, one of the law­makers who helped lead the push to delay the lead­er­ship elec­tion said all is not well with­in the House Demo­crat­ic ranks.

“We don’t want a rush a vote [for] lead­er­ship for them to think that everything is busi­ness as usu­al,” said Rep. Ruben Gal­lego of Ari­zona. “Everything is not good. Busi­ness as usu­al is no longer go­ing to work, and if we have the same lead­er­ship, as long as they un­der­stand what the pur­pose of their lead­er­ship is and where it is com­ing from and what it is sup­posed to do, I think a lot of us would feel more com­fort­able.”

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