Pelosi re-elected as leader despite disappointing gains in House

Nancy Pelosi. (Bloomberg photo by Patrick T. Fallon)

House Democrats voted to keep Nancy Pelosi as their leader next year as she fended off assertions that a string of election disappointments mean it’s time for a new generation and new type of leadership.

Pelosi, 76, turned back a challenge for her position as minority leader from Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, 43, who has represented the Youngstown area in the House since 2003. Pelosi of California won in a private vote, 134-63, by House Democrats.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, one of the lawmakers who nominated Pelosi in the closed-door meeting, said the stakes are high after Donald Trump’s victory.

“We need the very best to lead us,” he said, according to an aide in the room. “No one is a better tactician than Nancy Pelosi.”

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Ryan’s candidacy had focused largely on how Pelosi hasn’t been able to steer her party back into the majority since Republicans took the House as a result of the Tea Party-fueled 2010 election.

Democrats’ latest election disappointment came three weeks ago. Pelosi had predicted they could pick up more than 20 seats in the 435-seat chamber to significantly reduce their deficit, but instead the party gained just six. Ryan contended the election showed that Democrats had become less than a national party, and needed new leaders who could carry their message to voters in the Midwest and South, as well as the two coasts

But Pelosi retained the support of most party members, who have noted her fundraising prowess, past ability to lead congressional Democrats to power, and the need to stay unified against the incoming Trump administration.

House Republicans picked their leaders for the new session earlier this month, including Speaker Paul Ryan to continue to serve as the top House Republican.

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The two parties will submit Ryan’s and Pelosi’s names as their nominees to be speaker in a formal vote by all House members in January, with Republicans having the edge in the number of votes to be cast.

Pelosi was the first woman to become House speaker, holding the gavel for four years starting in 2007. She has been the House Democratic leader, as minority leader or speaker, since 2003.

Despite his loss, Ryan’s candidacy did highlight the widening generational gap between Democratic lawmakers and their leaders, as well as the growing dissatisfaction with Pelosi’s measured stewardship of a party stuck in the minority.

“There are troubled waters here that won’t be masked just because she wins this election,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

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Ryan tried to frame the choice as one between a failed past and the chance for the party to regain the support of voters it lost to Trump.

He said that either “we’ve decided to do absolutely nothing and change nothing,” or “go down a new road with a new messenger and a new message, and someone that can really energize our base.”

Signs emerged earlier this year that Pelosi may be losing her grip on House Democrats. Pelosi was a latecomer to one of the most significant moves by fellow House Democrats this session — a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor to protest congressional inaction on gun-control legislation. Only after other members led by Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and John Larson of Connecticut seized the floor did Pelosi join in.

Ahead of the leadership election, Pelosi released a letter to members re-emphasizing various internal changes she plans to incorporate “to maximize the participation of all members of our caucus.”

The ideas include relatively minor moves like creating new posts of vice ranking member for each committee to be filled by members serving on those panels for four terms or less, or making the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee chairmanship an elected position reserved for a member who has served less than five terms, and adding more co-chairmen positions.

Those changes are aimed at addressing the frustrated ambition of mostly younger rank-and-file members. A number of rising Democratic stars decided to leave the House at the end of this year, in part because of the lack of opportunity to advance in leadership posts.

Some Democrats complain that Pelosi’s latest moves are just token efforts. Pelosi and the two other top Democrats — Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina — are all in their 70s and will likely remain in their jobs after Wednesday.

Several House Democrats are believed to have aspirations to rise to leadership posts, though many remain relatively unknown outside of Washington. They include Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Joseph Crowley of New York, who is running for conference chairman. Other names include Xavier Becerra of California — who is leaving the chairman’s seat because of term limits — Peter Welch of Vermont, Raul Ruiz of California, Connolly of Virginia and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Pelosi has given no sign that she is moving on, though. And there are complaints that as she sticks around, her leadership team has calcified.

For instance, Pelosi surprised some by again supporting Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico to stay as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — despite the disastrous Democratic showing in House elections this month.

Unlike House Republicans, Democrats don’t impose term limits on the top posts on committees, which only intensifies the generational gap between party leaders and rank-and-file members. For instance, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, John Conyers, is 87; the Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey is 79; and Rules Committee top Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York is 87. Ways and Means top Democrat Sander Levin, 85, announced Tuesday he won’t seek that position again, saying he wants to support younger members.

At the same time, Pelosi remains a powerhouse fundraiser — she raised $141.5 million during the 2016 election cycle — and an iconic figure within her caucus. But House Democrats are firing some warning shots at her.

“Nancy Pelosi helped deliver great progressive victories like the Affordable Care Act during her speakership,” Gallego said in a statement Tuesday. “I was heartened to read that she is now heeding the younger voices in our caucus. However, let’s be clear: these changes are necessary but not sufficient.”

“What we’re doing now is not working. We have an opportunity for change,” Gallego said.

Another member, Kathleen Rice of New York, said in a statement backing Ryan last week that he “is the one person who’s starting those tough conversations that so many of us wanted our entire caucus to have.”

Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan and Sahil Kapur contributed.