Controversial Deal Paves Way for Pelosi Return to Speakership

Nancy Pelosi appears to have won enough votes to prevail in January by supporting leadership term limits, but key factions of the caucus don't like the idea.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Dec. 12, 2018, 8:01 p.m.

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi sealed her return to the helm of the House on Wednesday evening, announcing that she struck a deal with a group of holdouts in exchange for her support for leadership term limits.

The deal all but assures Pelosi will be elected speaker in January, becoming only the seventh person to serve nonconsecutive terms in the position.

It remains to be seen whether the term-limits proposal can be approved by the caucus, but Pelosi said in a statement that her members will hold a discussion and vote on the issue before Feb. 15. Pelosi added that she will abide by the term limits no matter what, meaning she can serve through 2020 with an option for another term through 2022 if two-thirds of the caucus votes for her.

“Over the summer, I made it clear that I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new Members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic Caucus,” Pelosi said in a statement. “I am comfortable with the proposal and it is my intention to abide by it whether it passes or not.”

In exchange for her support for term limits, some members who have been agitating for a change at the top have agreed to support Pelosi. Those include Reps. Bill Foster, Tim Ryan, and Linda Sanchez, who separately released statements of support for Pelosi Wednesday evening.

“When I joined this effort four weeks ago I said our goal was to think seriously about transitioning our caucus leadership to a new generation of Democrats in the House. The agreement announced today is a historic step in that direction,” Ryan said in the statement.

The proposal would limit members in senior leadership positions to three terms with the option of a fourth if two-thirds of the members support it. Pelosi and her top leaders would grandfather in the two terms they served in the majority from 2007 to 2011, meaning this term would the third.

It is clear there is vehement opposition for the term-limits proposal, chiefly from Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hoyer, who may be next in line to lead House Democrats, told reporters on Tuesday that he has long opposed limits and has even sponsored measures earlier in his career seeking to end limits on how long a president can serve. He said Pelosi has not kept him abreast of the negotiations.

“She’s not negotiating for me,” he said. “I am against term limits because I have a term limit. It is a two-year term limit, and the members of this House have to re-up my contract.”

Former CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver said he spoke with Rep. Ed Perlmutter, one of his closest friends in Congress and one of the key holdout negotiators, and told him he is doing a disservice to Democrats and emboldening Minority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip-elect Steve Scalise.

“I told him this: ‘If you do term limits, you’re weakening your leaders because if McCarthy and Scalise know that Pelosi is only going to serve a couple more months they’ll say, ‘Why should we work on a deal with you?’” Cleaver said. “They’re not seeing the sophistication of this joint and how long it takes to get it down and develop the relationships to get things done.”

Numerous other CBC members said they oppose leadership term limits but will not oppose Pelosi because of this deal. They said they are worried the idea will trickle down to the committee level—or maybe even to members of Congress writ large—preventing their members from obtaining lasting power and influence on key committees just as they have reached the pinnacle of their careers.

“If you impose term limits on leadership, then the argument will be made, ‘What about committee chairs and subcommittee chairs?’ … That’s where it’s going to have the most impact on African-Americans in terms of committee chairmanships,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield said. “Those in the second tier know it’s just a matter of time before the chairman moves on and then they will be in line to become chair.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, for instance, is the third-most-senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. She said that is among the reasons she does not support term limits.

“There are individuals who have been waiting and waiting and have a lot of desire and expertise to serve. Let’s consider them as well,” she said.

Still, with so many newer members making up the caucus, the issue may come up. One younger member, speaking on background to discuss internal caucus deliberations, said the committee-chairmanship discussion is one worth having.

“It takes too damn long in the Democratic Caucus to chair anything. Look at all the Democratic chairs coming in. They’re mostly 60-plus and have been here a million years. Some have already hung on too long,” the member said.

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