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

House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas 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 Moulton2020 Presidential Candidates Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid Mass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year 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 TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? 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 FudgeHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to testify on Libra | Extremists find home on Telegram app | Warren blasts Facebook for not removing anti-Biden ad | California outlaws facial recognition in police body cameras | China rips US tech sanctions House Democrats introduce new legislation to combat foreign election interference Harris wins endorsement of former CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge 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 HoyerOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Buttigieg targets Warren, Sanders on health care ahead of debate | Judge overturns ObamaCare transgender protections | Poll sees support drop for 'Medicare for All' Hillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference Overnight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Judge blocks Trump 'public charge' rule | Appeals court skeptical of Trump arguments for Medicaid work requirements | CDC offers guidance for treating vaping-related cases 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 LeeDeLauro enters race to succeed Lowey as Appropriations chief The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment Lawmakers mourn death of 'Julia' star Diahann Carroll MORE (D-Calif.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse chairman: Pompeo not complying with impeachment inquiry Sunday shows - Second whistleblower grabs spotlight Top House Democrat: 'We have Trump appointees who are clearly unnerved by the lawlessness of this president' 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 McConnellTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump again vetoes resolution blocking national emergency for border wall Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey MORE (R-Ky.) and Sens. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters Contractors fight for pay from last shutdown — and the next one Trump signs stopgap measure, funding government through November MORE (R-Ala.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment threatens to drown out everything Republicans show signs of discomfort in defense of Trump   Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play 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 MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network 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 FeinsteinSchiff should consider using RICO framework to organize impeachment We need answers to questions mainstream media won't ask about Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Trump grapples with Syria fallout 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 FlakeTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong How to survive an impeachment Are Senate Republicans certain that Trump can return to office? 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 SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' 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 GrahamTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey Graham opens door to calling Hunter Biden to testify MORE (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump’s, predicted bipartisan support for sanctions.

And Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong George Conway hits Republicans for not saying Trump's name while criticizing policy Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid 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.