An idea being floated to help Nancy Pelosi round up the final votes to become speaker is causing an uproar in the Congressional Black Caucus.
The California Democrat has personally been supportive of term limits for years but has never spent the political capital it would take to get them enacted. Such a move would certainly trigger the wrath of the CBC, which strongly opposes term limits on the grounds that they undermine minority members who spent years working to get to influential positions.
But Pelosi faces a tricky political calculation over whether it’s in her best interest to break her silence on the matter and fully endorse it as she looks to win the 218 votes needed to reclaim the speakership.
Incoming freshmen, some of whom are threatening to vote against her on the floor, want the change. And some Pelosi critics who were vowing to oppose her are considering supporting her for speaker if she endorses the idea, sources in that group told POLITICO.
“This is all about [Pelosi critic Rep. Ed] Perlmutter and trying to get a few of those other guys to vote for her,” said a senior Democratic staffer familiar with the internal debate. “She’s always sort of danced around it because she hasn’t wanted to open a full-frontal war with the Black Caucus.”
Pelosi’s allies pushed back on that notion and argued that the two issues — Pelosi’s speakership bid and the term limit discussions — are totally separate. To be sure, younger lawmakers have called for term limits on power for years.
Pelosi’s office has also denied that she made any sort of offer on term limits to Perlmutter for his support, though the Colorado Democrat told rebels trying to oust her that she did earlier this week.
Regardless, CBC lawmakers are trying to quash the suggestion all the same.
CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond said in a Friday interview that “it’s possible” Pelosi could lose more speakership votes than she’d gain by endorsing the proposal. And even South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the incoming Majority Whip, said the topic is too sensitive to have this discussion in the middle of a heated battle over the speakership.
“I’m all willing for us to have that discussion and live by the decision that the caucus makes. But we ought not to make these kinds of decisions in the heat of a campaign” for speaker, Clyburn said.
The idea is expected to surface in a House Democratic Caucus meeting next week, though members will not vote on the matter since incoming freshmen will not be present. The CBC will also debate the matter next week and will likely come out in full opposition to it, Richmond predicted.
The outgoing CBC chair called the idea “a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.” Rep. Gregory Meeks, a senior CBC member, suggested the proposal would specifically undercut black lawmakers who spent years waiting their turn to head committees under seniority rules. Black lawmakers are poised to lead five committees and nearly 30 subcommittees in the next Congress.
“To wait until we get the most diverse Congress ever and the most chairmanships ever?” he asked, aghast. “We’ve never had as many African-American chairs of full committees or subcommittees in our history than right now — so at this moment we’re going start talking about term limits?”
Clyburn agreed, musing that the idea would undercut minority lawmakers just when they’re on the cusp of assuming some of the most powerful positions in Congress: “If we are going to have term limits, if we are going to throw out the baby with the bath water, we ought to think about whether or not we’re doing the right thing, whether or not there’s going to be any unintended consequences in this,” he said.
Pelosi doesn’t currently have the votes to be speaker, though she’s certainly making headway. The Californian still needs to peel off several opponents and is searching for a way to do that using her well-oiled persuasion tactics or by leaning on outside groups close to her critics to make the case for her leadership.
Some members of the rebel group are open to the idea of backing Pelosi in exchange for term limits — though it is unclear how many. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who said he will vote against Pelosi on the floor, has argued for term limits for committee leaders in the past. Kind’s office didn’t return a request for comment, but other rebel sources confirmed that their own offices were interested in such a deal.
“The deal is definitely not done yet,” said a source close to the group. “This is a good starting point, but she would have to throw her full weight behind it in caucus.”
It’s unclear, however, if Pelosi is willing to do that. Following reports of her talk with Perlmutter, her spokesman Drew Hammill pushed back hard on the idea that she was floating some kind of term limits for support proposal. Then, Pelosi notably declined to endorse the idea fully during a press conference Thursday.
“That’s a matter before the caucus,” Pelosi said when asked about the idea. “I’ve always been sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed by our members on that subject.”
Pelosi could back the proposal under the assumption that it would anger the CBC but not fully repel their support for her speakership. And that wouldn’t be an unfounded calculation: Meeks, for example, said confidently that “Nancy Pelosi will be the next speaker” when asked if the term limit idea would make black lawmakers pause and re-examine their support for her.
But it might not make sense for Pelosi to do that, especially if it doesn’t win her any support from rebel groups. For many of her critics, including Rep. Kathleen Rice and Tim Ryan, the term limits change won’t be enough.
Opponents of term limits such as Meeks say members should mount a challenge for chairmanships if they don’t like their committee leaders. But that idea doesn’t always match up with the reality of the Democratic Caucus, which has long placed a premium on seniority.
For instance, members privately grumbled for years that then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), in his late 80s, was no longer fit to be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. It was an open secret that Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), now the incoming chairman, was doing much of the ranking member’s job but without the title.
Conyers was a founding member of the CBC and no other members were willing to risk the ire of the powerful group in order to try to oust him from the top of the committee. It wasn’t until Conyers, under siege after being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment last year, stepped down from the committee and retired from Congress that the panel’s top spot opened up.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine