Term limit fight highlights growing pains for Pelosi’s majority

A promise by Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection MORE (D-Calif.) to stage a vote on leadership term limits is exposing the deep generational divide expected to tug at Democrats when they take back the House next month.

Ambitious freshman and younger members who have been clamoring to inject new blood into leadership are more inclined to support a cap on the tenure of those in top posts, a move that would help clear up the bottleneck of power in the caucus.

But those looking to shake up the party’s governance are on a collision course with the old bulls who have accumulated power over the years by virtue of their patience and seniority. And they will be loathe to give it up without a fight.


Term-limit critics include not only long-time leaders like Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBiden signs Juneteenth bill: 'Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments' House passes political spending, climate change corporate disclosures bill House to vote Wednesday on making Juneteenth a federal holiday MORE (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), but also incoming committee chairmen like Reps. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealBiden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Republicans open new line of attack on IRS Ireland, loved by Biden, is obstacle to tax deal MORE (D-Mass.) and Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneIntercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 House Democrats criticize Texas's 'shortcomings in preparations' on winter storms MORE (D-N.J.), who are in line to take powerful gavels next year and hold the view that leadership term limits are a slippery slope to the eventual erosion of their own power atop those panels.

“I’m totally opposed to term limits, and I always have been,” Pallone, who will likely lead the Energy and Commerce Committee next year, told The Hill this week. “We use elections to decide who our leaders are and who our committee chairs are. That’s the Democratic way.”

Opponents also have the backing of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), whose members are set to lead a handful of committees next year and fear the term-limits proposal could dilute their influence within the full Democratic caucus.

“I’m not supporting that. I don’t care who else is agreeing to it,” said the 78-year-old Clyburn, who was elected to serve as majority whip next Congress. “The Congressional Black Caucus has taken the position for years that seniority term limits run contrary to the life experiences of those of us who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Just that simple.”

The agreement to vote on leadership term limits was forged over the last few weeks by Pelosi and a small but determined group of rebellious Democrats fighting to spread power and create more opportunities for newer members within a caucus that’s been led by Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn since 2006.

Initially, the insurgents had tried to block Pelosi’s ascendency to the Speakership altogether. As Pelosi, 78, consolidated her supporters — and picked off some of her opponents — they shifted gears in an effort to win less ambitious concessions from the longtime Democratic leader.

“Obviously the vast majority supported Nancy, and that was something we all had to recognize,” Rep. Ed PerlmutterEdwin (Ed) George PerlmutterDemocrats urge Biden to take executive action on assault-style firearms Colorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Colo.), who led the negotiations on behalf of the insurgents, told a handful of reporters Thursday in the Longworth Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), 49, the only current member of the Democrats’ leadership team to support the anti-Pelosi insurgency, said the goal all along was to create a specific timetable for “when the current leadership might leave.”

“My entire congressional career, I have served under those three leaders — 17 years in the Congress, I’ve known nothing different,” said Sánchez, who joined Perlmutter in his office Thursday. “There comes a time when you have to have a discussion about succession, and that is a discussion that as a caucus we have been unwilling to have.

“This forced the issue,” she said.

Their compromise, to be voted on by the full caucus in February, would cap the tenure of the top three leaders at three terms, with the option of a fourth if the candidate can win the support of two-thirds of the caucus. The limits would apply retroactively, meaning Pelosi’s initial stint as Speaker from 2007 to 2011 will count as two of the maximum four terms.

It’s unclear whether the proposal will have enough support to pass, but it will need approval from only a simple majority of the caucus. Pelosi has promised to abide by the term limits regardless of whether the conference adopts them.


The deal was a capitulation of sorts for Pelosi, who had previously vowed not to put a timeline on her leadership tenure, for fear of neutering her negotiating powers. On Thursday, she downplayed that concession, saying four more years as Speaker is “a long time” and suggesting she got everything she wanted from the agreement.

“They were saying six months, to begin with,” she told reporters in the Capitol. “I feel very comfortable about what they are proposing, and I feel very responsible to do that, whether it passes or not.”

Perlmutter suggested there’s a lot more support for the term limits proposal than the public discussion has so far revealed, not least because of the influx of newer members since Pelosi last held the gavel. Of the 235 House Democrats next year, roughly 60 percent have never governed from the majority.

But Perlmutter also acknowledged the formidable resistance from some of the more powerful figures in the party. Perlmutter said he spoke with both Hoyer, 79, and Clyburn in recent weeks, suggesting the talks were somewhat contentious.

“Change can be a little bit messy, and this place is based on relationships,” he said. “And you start changing those relationships and you can strain some things.”

“I don’t know if you’d call them talks,” Sánchez quipped, of the discussions with Hoyer and Clyburn. “Earfuls, probably.”

An internal debate over the term limits proposal will take place in the new year so that the incoming freshman class can be involved in what are likely to be animated discussions.

Dozens of Democratic candidates criticized Pelosi or called for new leadership on the campaign trail, so backing the plan could provide an outlet for them to channel their frustrations, especially with Pelosi poised to secure the Speaker’s gavel in January. But they could also face pressure from more senior members to oppose the effort.

While many Democrats declined to voice their position on the term limits proposal until the formal debate is underway, some younger members offered early endorsements of the concept.

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaPublic option fades with little outcry from progressives Democrats shift tone on unemployment benefits Khanna outlines how progressives will push in climate infrastructure proposal MORE (D-Calif.), a liberal first-term lawmaker who is thought to have leadership ambitions of his own, said he is inclined to support term limits for party leaders, though he does not feel the same way about time constraints for committee chairmen.

“It allows people to stay eight years leading the party. That’s a long time,” Khanna, 42, told The Hill.