ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. Joining me are four seasoned congressional reporters: Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour, Jake Sherman of POLITICO, Erica Werner of The Washington Post, and Manu Raju of CNN.
There will be a seismic shift in Washington next year when the 116th Congress meets. Democrats have retaken the majority of the House, and Nancy Pelosi is hoping to be in the driver’s seat, one she held before. Pelosi was born in Maryland. Her father was a congressman and later mayor of Baltimore. Her career in politics started in California, working for the state Democratic Party. She was first elected to Congress in a special election in 1987. Twenty years later, in 2007, she became the first woman to serve as speaker of the House, steering legislation on a daily basis, some historic bills.
Now Pelosi is campaigning for a second time – sound round in that role. While she has the support of many in her caucus, 16 Democrats have signed a letter opposing her bid saying, quote, “the time has come for new leadership.” Eleven of the signers were current lawmakers, four of them new freshmen, and 14 of the 16 were men. Pelosi needs 218 votes to be elected speaker.
Erica, you think about this moment for Nancy Pelosi, expected to maybe, probably be the next speaker of the House. What does it tell you about her, to survive politically another decade in this position, to come back?
ERICA WERNER: Well, I mean, she’s an incredible and singular figure in American politics, and certainly Congress. She has incredible achievements under her belt. You know, no one could deny that. This is someone who passed the Affordable Care Act, passed a cap-and-trade bill through the House, passed Dodd-Frank. And she raised tons of money for her party along the way. Yes, she oversaw several unsuccessful elections for House Democrats, but this election she helped her party retake the majority. And she’s now being challenged by 15 or 16 people who could deny her a return to the speakership. It’s pretty incredible.
MANU RAJU: Yeah. I mean, I think that we don’t know how this is going to turn out. Next week we expect her to get now formally nominated by her caucus to become their caucus’ choice for a speaker, because the threshold’s lower than actually being elected speaker. Just half of the House Democratic Caucus needs to nominate her. And then the real question is, what’s going to happen on the House floor in the first day of the new Congress next year. At that point, of course, all Republicans will vote for their choice, Kevin McCarthy. And the Democrats will mostly vote for Nancy Pelosi.
But what will happen if she does not get the threshold, which is 218 of members who are actually casting a vote? If she’s under that 218 number? That is a big question going forward. And at the moment, it’s very close because the members who are coming out publicly suggest that they have the votes. But will they change their mind at the end of the day when she’s the last Democrat standing? We’ll have to see.
MR. COSTA: Jake, when you – Jake Sherman, when you think about her political profile, who are her allies, her lieutenants? What’s her network in Washington and her network nationally? Because she’s more than just the speaker of the House. She’s a force in the Democratic Party. How do you see it as a congressional reporter?
JAKE SHERMAN: It would be tough to find somebody in the Democratic coalition that’s not her ally. And by coalition, I mean labor unions, super PACs, advocacy organizations like Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood. I mean, the Democratic coalition, she’s helped build and cobble together and keep together over the last two decades, or more than two decades really. Her allies in the capital include Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who long-time Democrat from New Haven. People like Anna Eshoo of California. She has a lot of allies, coastal allies, from California and from the East Coast who have protected her and have been her eyes and ears in a Democratic Caucus that was, at one time, very difficult to manage because it included conservative Democrats and it included liberals. And it was very tough to keep those two factions together.
Now, the coalition has come back – has changed a little bit over time. But Nancy Pelosi does – the thing to keep in mind – is does have the support of probably close to 200 of her colleagues. And it is a small group. And the question is, can she grind down somewhere, like, five or six of those dissenters and work them to neutral, either to come to the floor and vote present, which would lower the threshold from 218, allow her to win with a lower number. John Boehner had that dynamic in 2014. Or, could she flip a couple people by giving out committee assignments, additional staff, promises? And the one thing we were talking about before the show, is can she put out there that she’s going to leave Congress at some date certain? She’s been loath to do that so far, but I think that would really make a lot of her dissenters much more comfortable in voting for her.
MR. COSTA: Nancy Pelosi recent told TIME Magazine, quote, “If I weren’t effective, I wouldn’t be a target.” How do you see her as a leader on Capitol Hill?
LISA DESJARDINS: It was remarkable that when we talked to either the new freshmen Democrats who campaigned saying that they would vote no on Nancy Pelosi, or the members of the sort of insurgency who were trying to take her out, none of them questioned her skills. They didn’t question her fundraising ability. They didn’t find any fault with her abilities. The thing they kept coming back to – and I asked person after person who was opposing Pelosi – they said: We think it’s time. You know, or they personally don’t like her. They may be on the outs with her personally. But more often, you just hear she’s been in too long. Her leadership team has been in too long.
That’s a fair criticism when you have so many new people coming up. But is that the reason to change hands when the Democrats have one seat at the table, and it’s the speaker, in the Trump presidency? Is that when you do it? So she is very effective. And I think that is the main argument she’s making, that no one else can do this job as well as I can. And note that on that letter that 16 people signed, that we saw this week, saying they would not vote for her, we had been told it was more like 20-something and growing, you know, people kept sort of intimating it was getting up to 30 names. No, it was 16 names. So people are keeping their powder dry, in particular the freshmen women who said they would vote “no” on Pelosi, are thinking very carefully about only voting no in this month, and not in January.
MR. COSTA: Any insights into her relationship, Manu Raju, with President Trump?
MR. RAJU: It’s mostly non-existent. I mean, they have, of course, had interactions in the last—
MR. COSTA: Over the years, right, they had been friendly? He was a Democrat at one point.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. Yes. But I don’t think he was ever to the point of any sort of serious relationship. They have had discussions. They’ve had some compromises early on in this Congress, where the president essentially caved to the whims of the Democrats on some spending issues and the like. Now this is a whole different ballgame. The president has not needed her. The White House has not courted House Democrats, really has focused on Republicans and the Senate. Now they’re going to need her. And that’s going to be a relationship in progress. So maybe that’s why the president did tweet that he can help her find votes, even though she has rejected that notion. But they are going to have to work together, because the government is going to have to be funded. The debt limit is going to have to be raised. There are going to be very serious fiscal matters that require Congress to act, and the president’s signature.
MR. COSTA: One part of the Pelosi story, Erica Werner, that doesn’t get probably enough attention, are her deputies. You think about the leadership team. It’s Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn. Steny Hoyer from Maryland, Jim Clyburn from South Carolina. All three above the age of 75. Why hasn’t Hoyer, for example, been challenged during this leadership fight? Why has it all been about Pelosi, not about Hoyer? And Clyburn was briefly challenged, but then his challenger dropped out.
MS. WERNER: Yeah. It’s pretty amazing. You have these three individuals who have – who are all well over 70, who have led House Democrats for decades through good times and bad for the party. And you can see why that would lead to calls for change. Although, as Lisa kind of noted, what the dissenters are calling for is just change. They don’t have policies that they want. They just want change, it’s time.
MS. DESJARDINS: Right, or an alternate set of skills that they’re pushing. Yeah.
MS. WERNER: Right. But it’s been quite interesting that Hoyer, a long-time rival of Pelosi’s – and that’s gone on for years. And he’s always wanted to be speaker, and there’s always been a sense that she never would leave if it would make way for him. But –
MR. RAJU: If she’s going down, she’s taking him with her.
MS. WERNER: Exactly. (Laughter.) But the three of them have been working together to get Pelosi over the top in this speaker race. Hoyer is helping her out. So they’ve kind of assumed a, you know, “Three Musketeers” almost image, or performance in this – in this scenario. I think it’s a good question why Hoyer, he’s a white man, you know, in the #MeToo movement, isn’t getting challenged. But she’s been the face of the party much more prominently.
MS. DESJARDINS: I think he made – I think Hoyer made a good early read maybe even a year ago, seeing that if they took over the House it would be through a lot of changing faces. And he worked over the summer particularly hard, going district to district, I think something like 170 different districts he went to and personal campaigned for, raised money – places where Nancy Pelosi was, frankly, not wanted. He would show up. And so that allegiance and that work, I think, is paying off for him right now.
MR. COSTA: Jake, final thing. You’re coming out with a book The Hill to Die On, with a co-author. And you think about what drives Mitch McConnell in the Senate, the judges, the courts, you think about President Trump, this outsider who wants to disrupt every American political norm. What about Leader Pelosi? You’ve spent time covering her for a long time. What drives her? What keeps her in the arena? What makes her want to do this?
MR. SHERMAN: She is a really skilled legislator who seems to thrive off of building unlikely coalitions for different pieces of legislation. And I think she feels now, in this iteration of her power, that an opposition party is so critical, and needs to be unified, and needs to be sharp, and needs to be targeted. And she is the person who could do that, because of her years of experience. And there is an argument to be made that she is, at this moment, objectively the only person with those skills, in that nobody has been at the height of power. She has been at the height of power for so long that nobody else has that skillset.
MR. COSTA: It almost reminds me of when Paul Ryan became House speaker. He seemed to be the only one who was capable in a chaotic House GOP of doing it. You and Anna Palmer working on this book about – a lot of it has to do with Ryan. Just any thoughts on his legacy quickly?
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah. It’ll be complicated. I think it will be wrapped up in Donald Trump, which is something, if you asked him five or six years ago, he would have never, ever imagined. A guy who was Ways and Means Committee chairman, got tax reform done, speaker of the House, vice presidential candidate. And his legacy will be, to many people, his relationship with the president.
MR. COSTA: And the Pelosi legacy could end up being tied with President Trump. We’ll see in the next year or two.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.