Pelosi Will Walk a Tightrope If Democrats Win the House

(Bloomberg View) -- The chances that Democrats will win a majority in the U.S. House this year are better than 50-50. The odds that Nancy Pelosi will become the next speaker are less than that.

Although the election is more than seven months away, the jockeying and calculations on what a Democratic majority leadership might look like have already begun. More than inside speculation, this goes to the promise and problems facing any possible Democratic majority next January.

A catalyst is Democrat Conor Lamb's upset victory this month in the special Pennsylvania congressional race. Republicans sought to tie him to Pelosi, but he vowed not to support her. Politics is a copycat business, so look for other Democratic challengers to make similar commitments. Already, there were 63 Democrats, or almost a third of the caucus, who voted against her for the party's House leader after the last election.

The party faces conflicting pressures. If Democrats pick up 35 to 40 seats, it'll be seen as a "change" election. The incumbent leadership, which has been in place for more than decade, is Pelosi, who'll be 78, Maryland's Steny Hoyer, who will be 79, and South Carolina's James Clyburn, who will be 78. That doesn't signal change.

New York Representative Joseph Crowley, Hoyer and others are testing the waters for a speaker's race. But women will make up at least one-third of the caucus; to replace Pelosi, who was the first female speaker, with an older male, or to have two New Yorkers leading the party in the House and the Senate, would be bad optics. 

There are reports that Clyburn, who is African-American, may step aside. If he does, there would be an insistence on retaining diversity in the leadership, given the importance of black and Latino voters to the party. Moreover, the dump-Pelosi crowd ignores a couple of realities: She is an enormously effective legislative strategist, the best vote counter in the House. And while critics depict her as a San Francisco left-winger, she's more a tough-minded pol. There may not be any leader who could better keep a desperate caucus together, or protect new members representing marginal districts from having to cast ideologically risky votes.

In addition to Hoyer and Crowley, another name mentioned is California's Adam Schiff, who wins praise for exposing Republican buffoonery on the House Intelligence Committee in its Russia probe. At 57, Schiff is smart and telegenic, but those aren't sufficient skills for a speaker; just look across the aisle at Paul Ryan.

Among the women who could move up is 46-year-old Cheri Bustos of Illinois. A former journalist married to a sheriff, she has made a mark as a three-term member, but never in a leadership role. An intriguing possibility is Representative Karen Bass, 64, of California. A Pelosi ally, she was speaker of the California Assembly, the first black woman in that job.

For diversity, there also is Elijah Cummings, a respected veteran Maryland lawmaker, though he has had some health problems, and New Mexico's Ben Lujan, who will get credit as chairman of the congressional campaign committee if Democrats score major victories in November.

If Democrats don't win a majority in November, there will be new leaders. If they win, a majority of the Democratic caucus would vote for Pelosi for speaker. But she could be thwarted in the full House if, for example, the Democrats have a 16-vote margin in the chamber and 35 Democratic members have pledged not to vote for her.

A speaker must be elected by a majority of House members voting. When right-wing Republicans threatened to withhold their votes and dump John Boehner, disrupting the institution, Pelosi privately sent word that there would be enough Democratic votes to stymie the move. That kind of cross-the-aisle offer would not be reciprocated by the current crop of Republicans.

In such a scenario, the only way for her to stay would be to cut a deal to head a new leadership team. She could pledge, say, to serve only one term as speaker. The party, one House Democratic insider speculates, could then turn to a younger member, like 38-year-old Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts or Karen Bass. That's probably too neat.

This will be a very personal vote, and members are cagey, so discount any claims of support in the months leading up to the election. When Morris K. Udall ran for House majority leader years ago, he went into the caucus vote believing he had a majority but he lost decisively. Afterward the Arizona Democrat explained the difference between a caucus and a cactus. Alas, his exact word choice can't be printed here, but he said that on a cactus, the spikes -- actual word omitted -- are on the outside.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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