This week: Pelosi faces first test for Speaker's gavel
© Stefani Reynolds

House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' Pelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill MORE (D-Calif.) is facing her first hurdle this week in her bid to reclaim the Speaker’s gavel.

Lawmakers are returning to Washington after a weeklong Thanksgiving recess, with Pelosi and her allies working behind-the-scenes to flip opponents and lock down support for her bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus next year.

House Democrats will have a closed-door vote Wednesday for a Speaker nominee. The real drama for Pelosi will come during the floor vote in January, where she’ll need to wrangle together 218 votes. But this week’s private caucus meeting is an early hurdle, and measurement of support, for Pelosi.

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Pelosi has remained confident that she will ultimately be picked to return as Speaker and is the only formal candidate for Democrats. But a group of 16 detractors, led by Rep. Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur MoultonThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg to debate; Warren on separate night MORE (D-Mass.), sent a letter last week asserting they feel the party needs new leadership. While two of its signers have announced they will support Pelosi on the floor, the group could prove problematic in her quest to regain the Speakership.

In addition to those who signed on to the letter, nine Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus have said they don’t feel they can currently support Pelosi unless she’s willing to back rules changes.

“While we appreciate Leader Pelosi’s broad commitment to our effort, we have yet to receive specific commitments to our proposed rules changes that would help ‘Break the Gridlock’ and allow for true bipartisan governing in this new era of divided government,” the group said in a statement to The Hill.

“Although we are at a stalemate in our discussions, and therefore cannot support Leader Pelosi for Speaker at this time, we will keep working with the Leader and others in hope of reaching consensus on specific rules changes for more bipartisan, common sense governing.”

Pelosi is expected to meet with the group early this week.

House Republicans — who voted on their leadership earlier this month — have been enjoying watching the chaotic infighting across the aisle. The GOP has long vilified Pelosi, often linking Democratic candidates to her during campaign season. Top Republicans have argued Pelosi remaining in power gives them an edge in regaining the majority in 2020.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE has gone as far as floating the idea that the party could help provide Pelosi with the votes needed to secure the Speakership, an unprecedented move that underscores how politically advantageous Republicans believe having Pelosi, a frequent campaign boogeywoman, as Speaker is instead of a lesser-known Democrat.

While Pelosi faces a number of challenges, she received a bump in her odds over Thanksgiving break.

The California Democrat gained a critical endorsement: Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeFederal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Federal employees turn their backs on Agriculture secretary after relocation plans announced Lawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' MORE (D-Ohio), the congresswoman Pelosi critics were looking to recruit to challenge her for the top position in the lower chamber. Pelosi received Fudge’s support after she announced the Ohio Democrat will chair the House subcommittee overseeing election activities.

Pelosi also received the endorsement of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another potential detractor, who announced she plans to vote for Pelosi on Wednesday.

"All the challenges to Leader Pelosi are coming from her right, in an apparent effort to make the party even more conservative and bent toward corporate interests. Hard pass," the New York Democrat tweeted last week. "So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for Speaker, she can count on my support."

House Democrats are also slated to vote on the rest of their leadership positions. House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerApprove USMCA before it's too late Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress MORE (D-Md.) is currently unopposed for the position of House majority leader. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is also running unopposed to serve as majority whip. Reps. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats set stage for next shutdown fight with wall-free spending bill Democrats set stage for next shutdown fight with wall-free spending bill Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE (D-Calif.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Steyer group targeting 12 congressional Democrats over impeachment MORE (D-N.Y.) are both vying for the role of conference chair.

Government funding

Lawmakers are returning to Washington with less than two weeks to prevent a partial government shutdown.

Congress failed to pass seven of the 12 individual appropriations bills before Sept. 30, the end of the 2018 fiscal year, instead kicking the remaining funding battles until Dec. 7.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' MORE (R-Ky.) and Sens. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill Trump's border funding comes back from the dead MORE (R-Ala.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump's border funding comes back from the dead Public policy expert: US has become 'outlier' on immigration practices Public policy expert: US has become 'outlier' on immigration practices MORE (R-S.D.) met with Trump before the Thanksgiving recess to talk about the end-of-the-year agenda, including funding the government.

Shelby said after the meeting that he urged Trump against a partial shutdown. He added that McConnell agreed they shouldn’t shut down the government and the president “seemed” to agree with them.

But Senate GOP leaders emerged from the meeting without a concrete proposal and without defusing a potential showdown over Trump’s controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall, which has loomed over the spending talks for months.

The House’s Department of Homeland Security bill provides $5 bill for the border, including fencing and technology, while the Senate’s version would give the administration $1.6 billion.

The funding talks are fraught with competing political forces: Trump is losing his Republican majority in the House making December his best shot at getting a boost in wall funding until at least 2021. Democrats, meanwhile, feel they have momentum after the midterm and are unlikely to lock themselves into an unfavorable deal when they’ll have more leverage in January.

Senate Democrats have signaled they won’t agree to more than $1.6 billion without a larger immigration deal, while Pelosi has previously warned that no House Democrats will support wall funding.

Also looming over the funding negotiations is a fight over special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE, as well as Trump’s pledge to cut foreign aid.

Nominations

McConnell has teed up five nominations to fill up the Senate floor schedule once lawmakers return Monday.

They’ll take a procedural vote at 5:30 p.m. Monday on Stephen Vaden’s nomination to be the Department of Agriculture’s top lawyer.

Once they wrap up Vaden’s nomination, they’ll need to work through four more: Karen Dunn Kelley to be deputy secretary of Commerce, Thomas Farr to be a district judge, Jonathan Kobes to be 8th Circuit appeals judge and Kathleen Kraninger to be the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Farr’s nomination has drawn intense opposition from Democrats and their outside group allies, who warn that, if confirmed, he’ll use his position as a federal judge to rule against minorities.

Part of their opposition dates back to the 1990s, when Farr defended Jesse Helms’ campaign after the Justice Department investigated it for mailing postcards to more than 120,000 North Carolinians, most of whom were black voters, suggesting they were ineligible to vote and could be prosecuted for voter fraud.

Farr — in response to questions from Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinUS women's soccer team reignites equal pay push US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push Bipartisan senators push new bill to improve foreign lobbying disclosures MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — said he did was not involved in the crafting of the postcards.

“I was not aware that the cards had been sent until they had been sent and the manager of the Helms Committee received a letter about the cards from the Voting Rights Section of the United States Department of Justice. The manager of the Helms Committee then called me for legal advice,” he added in his written responses to questions from the Judiciary Committee.

Farr was also part of a group of lawyers hired to defend congressional and legislative boundaries approved by the North Carolina legislature, some of which were later struck down in federal court.

Republicans hold a slim 51-49 Senate majority and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Ariz.) has pledged to vote against all Trump judicial nominations until he gets a vote on legislation protecting Mueller from being fired for political reasons.

That would leave Farr with the bare 50 votes needed to be confirmed by letting Vice President Pence break a tie, assuming he can hang onto every other Republican senator.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerUS women's soccer team reignites equal pay push Blue Dogs look to move forward on infrastructure project Democratic strategist says Republicans are turning immigration debate into 'political football' MORE (D-N.Y.) said that each of the 49 Democrats will oppose Farr’s nomination and implored other Republican senators to vote against him. For Democrats to be successful they would need to flip just one Republican senator in addition to Flake.

“BREAKING: All 49 Senate Democrats are now opposed to the Thomas Farr nomination. With Senator Flake opposed, we need one more Republican to defeat this nominee,” Schumer said in a tweet on Friday.

He added on Sunday that Farr “cannot be confirmed as a federal judge in North Carolina.”

Saudi Arabia

The Senate is expected to get a briefing on Saudi Arabia after they return from the Thanksgiving recess.

Senators have been clamoring for answers from the administration on the state of U.S.-Saudi relations in the wake of the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Congress is grappling with how to respond to Khashoggi’s death, with lawmakers proposing a range of actions from cutting off aid to Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen to sanctioning individuals responsible for the killing and blocking arms sales.

The murder, which is likely to come up in a closed-door Senate briefing, has placed new tensions on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which is at a low point in Congress, and sparked division between Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Trump issued a statement last week signaling he would not let the killing disrupt the relationship and later told reporters at the White House that the CIA did not “make a determination” on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.

"Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" the president said in the statement.

But Trump’s remarks appear to have rekindled talk of Congress taking action to respond the the killing and sparked backlash from Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate MORE (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump’s, predicted bipartisan support for sanctions.

And Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee but is retiring after 2018, warned that Congress will “consider all of the tools at our disposal” to respond.

“I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” he added in a separate tweet.