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For some House Democrats, leadership choice is ‘establishment vs. change’

One of the largest groups of congressional freshmen in recent memory has begun orientation on Capitol Hill. Will party leadership reflect the new representatives or rely on established legislators? Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., is confident she’ll become Speaker of the House, but not all of her Democratic colleagues agree. Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Congress prepares for new members to join their ranks, they are deciding who will be the face of each party following the midterm elections.

    Lisa Desjardins has the latest from Capitol Hill.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A chilly fall day in Washington brought a swarm of energetic faces, freshmen members of Congress posing for a photo of what is one of the largest groups of new members in recent memory.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But freshmen Democrats already face a test, as, inside the Capitol, a fight over who will be their speaker of the House is heating up. Nancy Pelosi, the current top Democrat, was upbeat that she will reclaim her former title.

  • Question:

    What's your level of confidence?

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    High.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Most members are standing by Pelosi.

  • Man:

    I'm a yes vote all the way through the end.

  • Man:

    I'm convinced she will have enough.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But others are openly calling for changes in the party leadership.

  • Representative Marcia Fudge:

  • Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio:

    I would say this: As we tout diversity in this party, there is no diversity in our leadership. I mean, if we're going to talk about it, we're going to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is among those leading the Pelosi rebellion, and says there are a significant number of votes against her.

  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio:

    We have a very talented caucus, with a lot of talent, and we just have to figure out who it's going to be, if anybody. But we're going to bring change. The people want change. And this is the establishment vs. change.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House Republicans, on the other hand, saw little drama, and overwhelmingly selected Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy to be their next leader.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    I'm very humbled to have the privilege to be able to serve and lead this conference.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Unity in our caucus has been our strength.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Across the Capitol in the Senate, more easy wins, as Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell each cruised to reelection.

  • Sen. Mitch McConell, R-Ky:

    Thanks a lot.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One bit of unfinished business added some tension. Florida Republican Rick Scott stood with newly elected senators, even though his race with current Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is under recount.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me from Capitol Hill, alongside our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    It's good to see both of you at the Capitol. We are used to seeing you apart.

    But there is so much to talk about.

    So, Lisa, let's pick up with the Democrats in the House. Nancy Pelosi's efforts to be elected speaker, where does that stand right now?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, if you ask Nancy Pelosi's team, they say that she is going to be speaker. They point out that she does have support from a majority of House Democrats.

    And that is exactly what she needs when Democrats vote internally two weeks from now. But that is just step one in the process. Step two comes in January, Judy. That's when whoever wants to be speaker needs to get a majority of the full House. So to do that, Nancy Pelosi would need more like 95 percent of her caucus to support her.

    She doesn't have that right now. In particular, 10 of the new freshman who arrived today campaigned saying that they would vote no, would not to support Nancy Pelosi. And there's another two dozen who haven't said which way they would go.

    There is a insurgent group of Democrats who are putting out a letter trying to get enough signatures to show that Nancy Pelosi can't cross that threshold in January. But we haven't seen the letter yet. It is not clear who their chosen candidate would be to replace her.

    Late today, Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who you heard from in our report, said she might consider running herself, but a lot of questions about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we did hear from some of the new and the former members or longtime members just now in your report.

    But you have also been talking to other folks. I want to ask you what they're saying and the who. I mean, who would it be if it's not Nancy Pelosi? You just mentioned Marcia Fudge, but who else?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, this group of insurgents says that they would like it to be either a woman or a person of color. And that's one reason Marcia Fudge is a top candidate, because she represents both of those groups.

    But it's not clear who else would be in the mix. I think, Judy, a really important group to watch is this new group of freshmen. This is a tricky position for them. They campaigned on bringing fresh ideas, new blood to the Capitol, and here they are faced with a Democratic leadership team that has been in office for 10 to 15 years.

    Do they oppose them? Do they not? I will say. It's interesting, Judy. Meeting these new freshmen today, they are one of the most self-possessed and strong group of new members I have ever met. It's remarkable, especially because so many are first-time candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's fascinating.

    So, Yamiche, I'm going to turn to you now with what we heard from the president today, coming out in support of sentencing reform, criminal justice reform. They're calling it the First Step Act. We just talked to Mark Holden. We talked to Carrie Johnson about it.

    But I want to ask you, because you're at the Capitol. This has to pass the Senate. We know a form of it did go through the House. What's the significance now of the president putting his weight behind this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this could be the most important criminal justice overhaul of a generation. And that's a good thing for President Trump if it passes.

    It could show that not only is he someone who could be tough on crime while also reforming the system, but it also could show that he could sign bipartisan bills. The bill itself would do some — several things, including working on recidivism, also doing something, a small on sentencing.

    And President Trump, of course, talked about this law and order presidency. He talked about the fact that our country needs more police officers.

    His Department of Justice said that federal — that federal oversight of local police departments shouldn't be happening. So, if President Trump can actually sign a bill that does something to help people get back into society after they have paid their debt to society, that shows that he's at least kind of going that extra step in allowing to — and allowing people to really move on after being in the criminal justice system.

    And it's not — it's also important to note that a lot of these laws that President Trump wants to change date back to the '90s, and they disproportionately affected African-American people. That would also be helpful for President Trump, if he could overhaul the system in that way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Yamiche, what are you hearing about how likely it is the House and the Senate are going to be able to agree on language on this and all — and both houses work with the president?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I think it's going to be very, very tricky, but everyone knows, everyone who's involved knows that they are — have a very limited amount of time and they have to get this done quickly.

    I have talked to several lawmakers today all across the House and the Senate, and they really were cautiously optimistic. All the Democrats that I talked to you, though, were not elated. I'm talking about Senator Cory Booker, who's come out opposed — opposing it. Senator Dick Durbin has opposed it.

    Civil rights activist Representative John Lewis opposed it. Acting Attorney General — or, I should say, former Attorney General Eric Holder also opposes it. The New York Times editorial board opposes it. And just today, 100 civil rights groups released a letter to oppose it.

    Now, Sheila Jackson Lee, who is someone who also opposes it, she told me that this is really coming down to sentencing. She wants to be able to look at families and say, hey, you — we are doing something retroactively to help the people who were hurt in the '90s.

    So it's really going to be a hard sell, I think, in parts of this — in parts of this country and in parts of Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're going to be watching it very closely.

    Thank you both for your reporting. Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thanks.

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