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Nancy Pelosi clears first hurdle to regaining House speakership

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 11/29/2018 By Jennifer Haberkorn, Los Angeles Times
Nancy Pelosi in a red shirt and smiling at the camera: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks on March 7, 2018, in Washington, D.C. © Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks on March 7, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday easily won the support of a majority of next year's House Democrats to become the party's nominee for speaker, rebuffing attempts from a faction of rebel lawmakers who were pushing for new leadership.

Pelosi's real test of whether she can regain the gavel will come Jan. 3, when she will need the vast majority of Democrats to support her on the House floor for the final vote to elect a speaker.

The California Democrat secured 203 votes from 239 possible participants, or about 85 percent of the caucus. Thirty-two Democrats voted no, three cast blank ballots and one person was absent.

It marked a significant victory for Pelosi, and a prominent sign she will be able to reclaim the job she lost in 2011.

No candidate emerged to challenge Pelosi, leaving the anti-Pelosi coalition to fizzle. Pelosi also worked hard to court her critics. Before the vote, she struck a deal Wednesday with nine members of the so-called Problem Solvers caucus to change some House rules that they say will make it easier to bring bipartisan legislation to the House floor. The group had withheld their votes for Pelosi for speaker over the changes.

She has garnered the endorsements of dozens of liberal activist groups and other Democratic lawmakers. She has been holding one-on-one meetings with returning and newly elected Democrats. Pelosi flipped the only opponent who floated a challenge, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, into a supporter by offering her a key subcommittee chairmanship.

"I think we're in pretty good shape," Pelosi said Wednesday, regarding the Jan. 3 vote.

Behind the scenes, her allies expressed even greater confidence. They argue that there are plenty of Democrats who voted against Pelosi on Wednesday who will support her on the floor next month.

With California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy elected last week as minority leader, a victory by Pelosi would mark the first time that both House leaders will be from the same state.

Since Republicans plan to rally around McCarthy in the speaker vote, Pelosi will need to get the support of 218 Democrats, leaving little room for opposition in her own ranks.

Two years ago, Pelosi lost 63 votes inside her caucus to become the House minority leader, but lost only four Democratic votes on the House floor.

Her supporters Wednesday derided the effort to defeat Pelosi.

"It's kind of this phantom campaign that's being run and not very successfully," said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Pelosi ally.

Some of Pelosi's one-time opponents said a challenger would have had to announce a campaign by the time Democrats voted in their caucus if he or she would have any chance of beating Pelosi on the House floor.

Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., who signed a letter with 15 other Democrats promising to oppose Pelosi, all but admitted defeat late Tuesday and acknowledged that the majority of Democrats want Pelosi.

"The idea (behind the letter) was to foster a real process for someone to come forward, a consensus candidate," he said. "And so if Mrs. Pelosi is the consensus candidate, then that process has been served."

Others pledged to continue the opposition. Several members of the rebellion, including Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., met with Pelosi Wednesday on their primary demand: a succession plan from Pelosi.

"Unfortunately, our concerns were dismissed outright," Rice said. "We remain united behind our goal of new leadership and intend to vote against Leader Pelosi in caucus and on the floor of the House."

But after the vote, the group seemed less confident that a rival Democratic will emerge to challenge Pelosi on the House floor. "We'll see," Rice said.

In January, Pelosi will likely need to get 18 of the 32 Democrats who voted no to flip. She got 203 votes Wednesday, but that included four delegates who represent territories and D.C. and cannot vote on the House floor. On the other hand, Pelosi has the support of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who was absent. That brings her to 200 votes, 18 short of the 218 she needs on the floor.

Democrats on Wednesday also elected Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to be the House majority leader and Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to be the House majority whip. Both have served as Pelosi's deputies since 2006 and ran unopposed.

If Pelosi wins the speakership, she would be the first person since Sam Rayburn in the 1950s to become speaker after previously losing the post when their party lost the majority.

She would also face the monumental task of keeping 235 energized Democrats unified while investigating President Donald Trump and working with, or against, a GOP-controlled Senate.

"I think it will be challenging. I mean it's a very large group, very idealistic, spread over the ideological spectrum," said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. But "one of the things that Nancy is so skilled at is helping people themselves find where their common ground is."

But because Democrats will only control a small portion of the government next year, keeping the party united may not be that difficult, said Rep.-elect Donna Shalala, D-Fla.

"Because the stakes are so high," she said. "This is not about getting down in the weeds and about individual objections. This is about, as (Pelosi) would say, saving the country. And when you feel like you're about something bigger than you ... that pulls people together in a very different way."

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., who signed the letter promising to oppose Pelosi but later flipped to support her, said: "Democracy is a sloppy mess."

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(Los Angeles Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.)

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