House

New hurdle arises in Pelosi’s march to Speakership

Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus are proving to be the latest hurdle to Rep. Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) rise to the Speakership.

Ten Democrats in the bipartisan, 48-member group are vowing to withhold their support for Pelosi - or any other Speaker nominee - unless the candidate commits, in writing, to certain changes in House rules designed to empower rank-and-file lawmakers and break partisan gridlock. 

Pelosi, while voicing general support for the group's ideas, has not issued a written commitment to adopting them. And the Democratic co-chairman of the group, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), said Tuesday that he won't support her without such assurances.

"Our position is ... we would only support a Speaker who is willing to support our 'Break the Gridlock' package," Gottheimer said Tuesday by phone. "That's what we've committed to, and where we continue to be."

Gottheimer noted that several House leaders - including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) - have both issued statements backing the Problem Solvers rules overhaul. Now he's asking Pelosi to do the same. 

"I'm eager to see specifically where Leader Pelosi - what specifically she will be behind," he said. "But it's got to be a concrete commitment in writing."

"An answer wouldn't be, 'We're going to do things differently, and we can get better without specifics,' " Gottheimer added. "Those of us who really believe that both sides need to actually work together and govern again, really believe that you're going to need specific changes to make that happen."

The maneuvering of the Problem Solvers Caucus is being closely watched by a small group of rebellious Democrats hoping to block Pelosi's rise to the Speakership. While the insurgents are not working directly with the Problem Solvers, they see a potential ally in their effort to oust Pelosi amid the escalating fight over who will lead the party in the next Congress.

"From what we've gathered, the Problem Solvers has asked her to put it in writing, and she has refused to do so," said a Democratic aide familiar with the anti-Pelosi members' strategy. "That has created some type of an issue, because although she's supportive of the changes, the Problem Solvers on the Democratic side - they want that in writing."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill was quick to point out that Pelosi has spoken positively about the Problem Solvers reform package. He also noted that she's asked Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the soon-to-be chairman of the House Rules Committee, to gather reform proposals from which to cobble together his own package of rules changes. The caucus debate over those proposals hasn't happened yet, Hammill emphasized, since Congress has just returned from a weeks-long recess surrounding the elections, and Pelosi was awaiting input from members of the incoming freshman class.

Pelosi, 78, is battling to retake the Speaker's gavel she lost in a red wave eight years ago. Pelosi has led the House Democrats since 2003, and a number of rank-and-file lawmakers want her gone to make room for new faces and fresh ideas atop the party. The million-dollar question remains whether Pelosi's detractors can rally the numbers to prevent her from winning a majority vote of the House in the early days of January, when the Speaker vote will take place. 

At least eight incumbent Democrats, and three incoming freshman, are on record saying they'll oppose Pelosi in the Speaker vote on the floor. It remains unclear how many more they'd need to block Pelosi's promotion, since a number of midterm races around the country are still too close to call. But if the insurgents were joined by Gottheimer and the nine other Democrats vowing to oppose any nominee who doesn't back their rules changes, the combination would almost certainly prove enough to block Pelosi's ascension.

Endorsing the Problem Solvers package, on the other hand, could be a boon to Pelosi's Speaker bid. Not only would she win over the Problem Solvers Democrats, she might attract support from Republicans in the group.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), the other co-chairman of the Problem Solvers, confirmed to The Hill on Tuesday that there are ongoing discussions about having a handful of Republicans supply Pelosi with votes for Speaker if she agrees to rules changes.

"There is [discussion] and we are awaiting their vote count," Reed said.

If some Republicans cross the aisle and back Pelosi for Speaker, they will have some cover from the White House. A day after Republicans' midterm drubbing, Trump endorsed Pelosi for Speaker and even suggested some Republicans should vote for her. 

"In all fairness, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be chosen Speaker of the House by the Democrats," Trump tweeted. "If they give her a hard time, perhaps we will add some Republican votes. She has earned this great honor!"

Unveiled earlier in the year, the Problem Solvers rules package consists of 10 proposals designed to empower individual members and grease the skids for passage of popular bipartisan bills that, in recent years, have frequently been ignored.  

Central to their reforms is a proposal requiring a supermajority vote - three-fifths of the House - to pass any legislation brought to the floor under a closed rule, and another ensuring fast-track consideration of any bill co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the chamber. 

It also proposes changes designed to prevent a small group of hard-liners from using threats to "vacate the chair" as a bludgeon to keep certain legislation off the floor, as the far-right Freedom Caucus has done in recent years. 

Gottheimer on Tuesday declined to say if his Speaker's vote will hinge on the nominee endorsing the entire package or just parts of it. He argued that all sides have a stake in breaking the legislative logjam. 

"What's most important, and what we've been focusing on, are those [proposals] that actually allow bipartisan ideas and legislation ... to make it to the floor and get a debate," Gottheimer said. 

Voters, he added, "want us to actually govern."

Scott Wong contributed.

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