Congress

They wanted term limits for leadership. Pelosi agreed. Now what?

Ed Perlmutter still hasn’t got a caucus vote. But he’s stopped pushing

Colorado Reps. Ed Perlmutter, center, pushed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to back term limits for senior Democratic leaders. For now, he’s dropping the proposal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the lead negotiator for a group of Democrats who pushed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to agree to limit her leadership tenure to four more years, is no longer pushing for the Democratic Caucus to adopt leadership term limits as part of its rules. 

“We’re just letting it sit right now,” the Colorado Democrat said. 

Last year, after Democrats won back the House in the 2018 midterms, Pelosi struck a handful of deals that helped secure the votes she needed to be elected speaker again. 

One of those deals was an agreement she negotiated with Perlmutter to back his proposal to institute term limits on the top three Democratic leaders. Pelosi agreed to abide by the term limit herself, regardless of whether her caucus would eventually formally adopt the proposal into its rules. 

Reps. Bill Foster of Illinois, Linda T. Sánchez and Gil Cisneros of California, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Tim Ryan of Ohio, and Filemon Vela of Texas were also party to the agreement. 

Perlmutter’s proposed caucus rule would have imposed three-year term limits for the speaker, majority leader and majority whip, with the option of a fourth term if the leaders could secure two-thirds support in the caucus. Typically, leaders only need simple-majority support to hold on to their posts. 

For the three current top leaders — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — the rule would’ve been applied retroactively, meaning the two terms they all served in the majority from 2007 through 2011 would count toward their total. If the Democratic Caucus were to have adopted the proposal, all three of them would not be able to serve beyond 2022.

“It is my understanding that Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and incoming Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern plan to bring up this proposal for a discussion and a vote by Feb. 15,” Pelosi said in a statement Dec. 12 after striking the deal with Perlmutter.  “I am comfortable with the proposal and it is my intention to abide by it, whether it passes or not.” 

Although the caucus discussion never happened, the California Democrat, currently in her third term as speaker, still plans to uphold her end of the bargain and not serve more than one additional term as the top party leader. Not wanting to make herself a lame-duck speaker, she has not said whether she plans to retire after this Congress or the next.

But Perlmutter is no longer inclined to make the caucus vote on formalizing the term-limit proposal, which, if approved, would also affect Hoyer and Clyburn and future senior Democratic leaders. 

“I’ll sit down with the rest of them,” he said, referring to Foster, Sánchez, Cisneros, Moulton, Ryan and Vela. “We’ll see what as a group we want to do. But I can tell you at this point, I’m not pushing it.”

Asked if he was personally inclined to drop it and never bring it up, Perlmutter said, “Yes.”

Different pages?

Other members of the group may not be on the same page as Perlmutter. Before speaking with him, Roll Call had asked Sánchez, Foster and Vela about the status of the term-limit proposal. 

“It’s funny that you mentioned that because I was thinking to myself the other day, ‘I need to touch base with Ed,’ because I was working on that and I don’t have an update,” Sánchez said.

The former Democratic Caucus vice chairwoman said she isn’t frustrated a vote on the proposal hasn’t happened as yet because there’s plenty of time before the next leadership elections, which would follow the 2020 election. 

“I don’t expect that it’s an issue that’s disappeared,” Sánchez said. “We just need to get the momentum rolling for it again. But I expect at some point we’ll have a vote.”

Vela said he did not know the status of the proposal, noting that Perlmutter was the lead on it.

Foster declined to characterize any internal deliberations, saying only, “It’s still under private discussion inside the caucus.” 

Asked if he personally felt comfortable that the caucus still hadn’t voted on the proposal — five months after it was scheduled to — the Illinois Democrat said, “I don’t view it as an emergency. There was a public statement [Pelosi] made at the time.”

The seven Democrats who were party to the agreement varied in their reasons to push for leadership term limits — whether it was opposition to Pelosi specifically or a broader desire to install a new generation of leaders. For Perlmutter, the proposal was always about the latter.

“I always knew [Pelosi] was a good speaker. And she’s just been, in my opinion, outstanding,” he said. 

As to why he is no longer pushing for the caucus to adopt term limits for the other top leaders, Perlmutter said, “I just think we’re all still finding our place in our caucus. So I don’t think we need to be mixing stuff up. But I will meet with the group.”

‘Right thing to do’

When Perlmutter does talk with the other members, he’ll find at least one who wants to move forward. 

“Of course,” Moulton told CQ Roll Call when asked if the caucus should still vote on adopting leadership term limits. “It was the deal. And Speaker Pelosi agreed to abide by it personally. We need to make sure that the other members of leadership are held to it too. That’s the legacy of the deal that we made. And it’s the right thing to do for the future of our party and to ensure that this amazing new generation of elected members of Congress actually gets a chance to lead our party.”

Moulton, who is running for president, acknowledged that the caucus has been focused on other things, like legislating, noting that the vote need not occur imminently. 

A group of 13 members within the Democratic Caucus, known as the Committee on Caucus Procedures, would need to vet the language of any proposed rule change. Leadership didn’t name members to the committee until after Feb. 15 (the date the caucus was initially expected to vote on the term-limit proposal) because of a government shutdown at the time.

“With the shutdown, we agreed to postpone it,” said New York Rep. Grace Meng, who chairs the Caucus Procedures panel. “And no one else has brought up that topic or language even to me as the chair.”

Perlmutter, a member of the panel, told other group members at a meeting earlier this week that he was holding off on pushing for a vote on his proposal.

Other than that brief discussion, the committee’s meeting was focused on a caucus plan to improve staff diversity. Democrats are debating adopting their own version of what’s known as the Rooney Rule, an NFL policy requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and other senior positions. 

“With the Rooney Rule, we’ve been talking, but there’s no set language yet,” Meng said, noting that her group plans to meet again on that proposal in September. 

But she said any member wanting the committee to consider the term-limit proposal can bring her language or ideas for review. 

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