House Democrats decided Wednesday they aren’t ready to change the top rung of their leadership, but many are still hankering for something new after re-electing Nancy Pelosi minority leader for the 115th Congress.
Some of that change is expected to come Thursday as the caucus meets to discuss proposals for amending internal rules that will result in an expanded leadership team — the exact structure of which is up for debate. Other winds of change will likely arise in the coming months and years.
Pelosi beat Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, her challenger in the minority leader race, 134 to 63. While it was a decisive victory, one-third of Democratic Caucus members voted for Ryan, dealing a blow to a leader known for keeping her caucus in lockstep.
One way in which the vote is likely to weaken Pelosi’s hand is in the discussion over how to structure leadership positions. Pelosi sent a “Dear Colleague” letter late Wednesday night offering her support for some of the members’ suggested changes — a way for her to save some face before what could be a contentious caucus meeting.
Ryan applauded Pelosi for adopting suggestions that others had been proposing. “These much-needed reforms will provide additional openness, accountability, and inclusiveness that has been missing for too long,” he said in a statement Wednesday night.
At Thursday’s meeting, a continuation of Wednesday’s roughly five-hour caucus elections, Democrats will consider adjustments to intraparty committees that oversee messaging, campaigns and committee memberships.
“There’s a lot of interest in pursuing [rules changes], particularly the notion of more direct election and a lot of interest in this issue of this additional leadership in the committee structures,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a Pelosi supporter.
Kildee said he expects the changes to focus on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
“Some mix of those may end up being elected, directly elected by members rather than having sort of an appointment with a pro forma confirmation,” he said.
Ryan’s challenge has fueled a lot of the discussion over various changes, and the ones he and Pelosi have both floated are likely to be adopted, Kildee said.
Several members have been critical of the process, under which Pelosi nominates members for leadership posts — even ones that are technically elected — and the caucus confirms her choice.
“Right now, Leader Pelosi appoints people in her inner circle to leadership,” said Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who backed Ryan.
Gallego said he and a few other members plan to offer amendments to the rules package to “democratize” the chairman positions for the DCCC, the DPCC and the Steering Committee.
Pelosi has already nominated members to fill those posts. A change to make them truly elective positions, however, may empower other members to run against Pelosi’s picks.
Despite that, Pelosi offered her support, in Wednesday night’s letter, for making the DCCC and DPCC posts elected.
Asked earlier Wednesday to explain why the process has been for her to nominate members for most positions and whether she’s open to making more posts truly elective, rather than appointed and confirmed, Pelosi demurred.
“You know what — I mean, that’s lovely. Tomorrow, we’re going to have a caucus,” she said, adding, “We have called for an expansion of those who would be participating in the leadership. And the caucus is the ruling body of the House Democrats. And we will be working out how we go forward.”
Pelosi, visibly annoyed by the line of questioning, commented to her leadership team after the news conference, “I thought they might ask about the world.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, who also backed Pelosi, said she should have some prerogative to pick her leadership team but that it shouldn’t be unbridled discretion.
“I think there needs to be some member input into the selection,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “But I think she deserves the deference.”
Members can, under the current rules, offer other nominations to challenge Pelosi’s, said Washington Rep. Rick Larsen, a Pelosi supporter.
However, that’s not typically been the practice, and not from lack of interest, some members say.
Ryan has said members have been afraid to challenge the existing leadership structure, but that he believes his challenge to Pelosi, while not successful, will give more members courage to do so.
“One of the messages that I’m trying to get out to people is that, ‘Look, you’ve got to participate. You got to kind of set your fear aside,’” he said.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer argued that the members of leadership have been elected, adding that he doesn’t think the lack of challenges to Pelosi’s nominations has been because of fear.
“I don’t think you’ll find that people are intimidated,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Obviously, they weren’t intimidated in the election for her [leadership position].”
However, Hoyer said he’s fine with some of the changes members are calling for. “I support some of that,” he said.
Many of the changes the caucus is expected to discuss had been backed by Pelosi before she was re-elected minority leader. Among those: expanding the DPCC chairmanship being vacated by retiring New York Rep. Steve Israel to three co-chairmanships, filled by members who’ve served five terms or less; adding five regional vice chairman positions to the DCCC; creating vice ranking member slots on committees; and adding a freshman representative to leadership.
The freshman class has selected Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa for the leadership post, Pelosi announced in Wednesday’s letter. Though, Hanabusa is not a true freshman. She had served in the House from 2011 to 2015 (in 2014, she ran for the Senate but lost in the primary) and is currently serving the remainder of the 114th Congress after winning a special election to replace Rep. Mark Takai, who died this summer of pancreatic cancer.
Butterfield said earlier Wednesday that members had not been provided many details about how some of the changes would work. The CBC had a lot of unanswered questions about how the vice ranking member position would be structured, the answers to which might raise some concerns for the caucus, he said.
“What are their duties going to be?” he asked, citing as an example, “Would a freshman be able to become a vice ranking member over someone that’s been on the committee for four or five terms?”
Pelosi's letter sought to address the CBC’s concern over members jumping the seniority line. “There is a consensus growing in support of this change where the vice chair or vice ranking member does not interfere with succession, seniority on the committee or seating arrangement,” she wrote. “The term of the vice chair or vice ranking member will be limited to one term.”
One proposal that Pelosi had originally supported is to reserve the assistant leader position, currently held by South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, for a member who’s served less than three terms the next time there’s a vacancy. That idea has been indefinitely tabled, according to Rep. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, the next CBC chairman, who had penned a memo last week opposing the change because he felt it would diminish the role, the No. 3 spot in leadership.
However, there still seems to be an appetite for creating a position in leadership for a member who has served three or fewer terms, and Pelosi said in her letter she will back that suggestion.
Richmond said he’s supportive of Pelosi nominating members to her leadership team, saying, “To the victor go the spoils.” But there’s definitely one benefit that’s come out of the leadership debate, he said.
“There are a lot more people engaged now, willing to play,” he said.
Simone Pathé contributed to this report.