WASHINGTON — As a steadfast Rep. Nancy Pelosi all but dared potential rivals for the gavel to come forward, a group of restive House Democrats vowed Wednesday to produce enough votes to block her from becoming the House’s new speaker.
For two days now, disgruntled Democrats have claimed they have 17 names on a letter opposing Pelosi’s leadership, promising to air the document soon. They say those signing on are pledging to vote against the Californian when the full chamber elects the next speaker on Jan. 3.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., confirmed the letter Tuesday, and an aide to an organizer of the effort said it stood at 17 names as of Wednesday. The aide was not authorized to discuss the letter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pelosi, asked by a reporter about her message to rebellious colleagues, challenged them to put forward an alternate candidate for speaker.
“Come on in, the water’s warm,” she said.
Democrats seeking to block Pelosi argue it’s time to give younger Democrats a chance to rise to high-level posts. They also say that Republicans have done such a good job demonizing her in campaign ads that it’s hard for Democrats to be elected in closely contested, moderate districts.
No challenger to Pelosi has emerged, but the group agitating for changes at the top of party leadership says there would be plenty of candidates should her bid be derailed.
“The first step is showing that she cannot get to 218, and then I believe the challengers will emerge,” Rice told reporters. She said that would make new members “feel more comfortable that they’re not just taking a no vote just to take a no vote.”
But Pelosi is one of her party’s most productive fundraisers, energetic campaigners and respected legislative tacticians, giving her wide support that will make her difficult to topple.
“I will be speaker,” she said Wednesday.
While simple math would say the 17 names would be enough to deny Pelosi a majority, other factors are at play. To win on the floor, a speaker needs 218 votes, under typical circumstances, but with absences or members voting present, the tally is reduced. As of now, Democrats hold 229 seats and Republicans hold 198, but several races remain undecided, so the Democratic number could grow. That gives Pelosi a margin of about a dozen or more seats, assuming all Republicans vote against her as expected.
“We’ve got enough to ensure that she cannot become speaker,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
The efforts to block Pelosi are led by a core group of incumbent Democrats opposed to her, but some newly elected lawmakers pledged during their campaigns to do the same.
One veteran lawmaker who signed the letter, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told reporters that colleagues have urged her to run for speaker.
“We’re not going to allow the Republicans to have a speaker, so certainly there will be someone that will step up” if Pelosi steps aside, Fudge said. “And those discussions are going on now.”
Even so, some divisions were emerging among the Pelosi opponents.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., a leader of the group, told reporters that keeping Pelosi as speaker but making other changes in the party’s leadership was “a possibility.” No. 2 Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and No. 3 leader Jim Clyburn, D-Md., have served under Pelosi for years.
“It’s about change,” Perlmutter said. “She’s not the goal. Maybe for some.”
It remains to be seen how many freshmen will join the effort to stop Pelosi’s rise.
Katie Hill, a newly elected Democrat from California, stood up during the afternoon caucus meeting and said that the freshman class wants to “move on” from the leadership debate. She said after the meeting that she expects to vote for Pelosi and said she didn’t oppose Pelosi during her campaign.
“The more anyone focuses on internal party dynamics, the less productive it is,” Hill said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’ve tried to run these campaigns against every single one of us, as far as comparing us to Nancy Pelosi, and it didn’t work.”
Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin of Michigan promised to oppose Pelosi during her campaign and said she is sticking to that pledge.
“I never want to be disrespectful to anyone who has served, especially a woman who has broken glass ceilings. And everyone needs to do what’s right for their district. For me, I need to hear what people are saying, and they want a new generation of leadership on both sides of the aisle.”
Other incoming members said they were undecided about their vote.
“I haven’t made up my mind. I have nothing more to say about it,” said Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood of Illinois.
Josh Harder, an incoming Democrat from California who defeated Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, said he’s “keeping an open mind and trying to listen to everybody.”
“We’re looking to actually accomplish things so we can go back and win re-elections in these tough seats,” Harder said. “And the way we do that is by helping people, and I think we’re looking for a Democratic leadership that’s actually going to do something.”
Pelosi has been Democratic leader since 2003 and was speaker — the first woman to hold the job — when Democrats had the House majority from 2007 through 2010. Hoyer has been No. 2 House Democrat since 2003, while Clyburn has been No. 3 since 2007. All are in their late 70s.
Pelosi is lobbying hard, meeting with individuals and groups of Democrats and getting boosts from outside allies. On Wednesday morning alone, her office released letters of support from the Communications Workers of America and United Steelworkers, two labor groups, and Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., a black caucus member.
There is little doubt Pelosi will win a majority of votes when Democrats meet privately after Thanksgiving to select their nominee for speaker. She will then have until Jan. 3 to round up enough support to prevail.
“The bishop of the church will call, the top fundraiser will call, President Obama will call,” Schrader said of the tools Pelosi could use to win over Democrats. “I would never underestimate Nancy Pelosi.”