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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