Basking in the House Democrats’ midterm election wins, Nancy Pelosi wanted to focus on the planks of the Democratic campaign platform that will become the new majority’s agenda: health care, infrastructure and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
But the California Democrat cannot escape questions about another theme that emerged on the campaign trail — opposition to her leadership.
Pelosi said she is confident she’ll be elected speaker, but that was the only question she wanted to answer on the topic during a victory lap press conference Wednesday.
She did opt to address President Donald Trump’s comment that she deserves to be speaker.
“I don’t think anybody deserves anything,” she said. “It’s not about what you have done. It’s about what you can do.”
Watch: Pelosi Spoke With Trump About How They Can Work Together
The more things change
Pelosi, 78, has held the top Democratic leadership position for the past 16 years, serving four of those as the first female speaker. She’s proved her skills as a legislator and a leader who can corral votes, most notably with her efforts to pass the 2010 health care law.
But the Democratic Caucus is hungry for change. Calls increased this cycle from Democratic incumbents and candidates asking for a new generation of leaders.
Still, no one has stepped up to challenge Pelosi or signaled they will. Her longtime deputy, Maryland’s Steny H. Hoyer, is running for majority leader and has so far been insulated from a challenge as well. But South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, the No. 3, is facing competition for the majority whip post from Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette.
Democrats will also have leadership contests for the positions below the top three — assistant leader and caucus chair and vice chair.
All the leadership races, except for speaker, can be won with a simple majority vote by the caucus. Pelosi, who could best any of her colleagues in a head-to-head caucus matchup, faces a more precarious position when it comes to securing the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker on the floor.
Of the known newly elected Democrats or those who will be voting in a leadership election for the first time, only 11 have said they won’t support Pelosi for speaker. And only three of those candidates — Conor Lamb from Pennsylvania’s 17th District, Jason Crow from Colorado’s 6th District and Abigail Spanberger from Virginia’s 7th District — have specified that their opposition will extend to the floor vote.
Democrats will hold a minimum of 223 seats next Congress. Of the 15 House races yet to be called at publication time, Democrats were leading in seven.
If they ultimately were to win those seats and none of the others trending toward Republicans at publication time, Pelosi would only have a cushion of 12 votes unless some Democrats opt to vote present, which would reduce the majority threshold she’d need to reach.
Some Democratic incumbents such as Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind are unlikely to vote for Pelosi on the floor either, adding to the obstacles she must overcome to secure the gavel.
‘For the People’
One thing Pelosi has going for her bid is the ambitious policy agenda she helped Democrats craft heading into the 2018 cycle. Democrats’ eagerness to start passing those bills will reduce their appetite for a nasty intraparty fight over the speakership.
The top three goals of Democrats’ “For the People” agenda they campaigned on are lowering health care costs and prescription drug prices; increasing pay and driving economic growth by rebuilding the country’s infrastructure; and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
The latter they plan to achieve through a government overhaul package comprising changes to campaign finance, ethics and voting rights laws, and extensive oversight of the Trump administration.
Democrats will likely face an internal debate about how far to go in their oversight efforts, with some members already talking about impeaching Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. But Pelosi has promised they will be measured and deliberate in their efforts to serve as a check and a balance on the Trump administration.
“I don’t think we’ll have any scattershot, freelancing in terms of this,” she said. “When we go down any of these paths, we’ll know what we’re doing and we’ll do it right.”
Health care was the top issue for Democrats on the campaign trail. They hammered House Republicans for passing legislation that would’ve opened the door for states to gut protections for pre-existing health conditions.
But Democratic candidates were divided about how best to shore up the health care system for the future. Some want to strengthen the health care law and add a public insurance option to compete with private-sector plans, while others want a government-run system like “Medicare for All.”
It’s unlikely Democrats will spend the next two years hammering out those differences when they won’t have willing partners in the Senate or the White House to increase federal control of the health care system.
But they could pass smaller changes to the health care law and pursue legislation to lower prescription drug prices, something Trump and Republicans have also expressed interest in doing.
Infrastructure is another area with bipartisan potential, as evidenced by its mention in congratulatory calls Pelosi received from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But big differences remain on how to pay for federal investments in infrastructure — not to mention that Democrats want to spend more federal government dollars than Republicans, who prefer to rely more heavily on private-sector investment.
Other Democratic policy priorities include providing a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children; strengthening background checks for gun purchases; rolling back the GOP tax cuts for corporations and high-income individuals; and enacting renewable, green energy policy changes.
The vast majority of the House Democrats’ agenda is unlikely to be signed into law, but their legislative efforts will show the nation what Democrats could accomplish if voters reward them with the Senate and the White House in 2020.