WASHINGTON — Representative Seth Moulton’s bid to prevent Nancy Pelosi from becoming House speaker again has been brash and bold or reckless and quixotic, depending on your point of view.
But what will it look like if Pelosi regains the gavel?
Make that, most likely, when. On Wednesday, House Democrats are expected to elect Pelosi by a large margin as their candidate for speaker in a closed-door meeting in the Capitol. Despite fierce criticism from Moulton and others, she and her two top deputies, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, are running unopposed for the spots.
Pelosi faces another, more daunting hurdle in January, when she likely needs to get 218 votes on the House floor to officially become speaker. That means she can only lose about 17 Democrats and still claim the gavel without some support from GOP members. Wednesday’s vote will say a lot about how much work she still needs to do to get there.
But Pelosi, a longtime representative from California, has been steadily picking off her Democratic critics over the past weeks, raising confidence that she will be victorious.
Moulton, who’s emerged as the unofficial leader of the group trying to dislodge Pelosi, may find himself in a jam, and perhaps a pariah in the party caucus, if she is able to quell the dissent in her ranks as her allies confidently predict. The question for him isn’t just how defeat will play inside the House but also what it will look like outside the Beltway, where his larger ambitions may well lie.
Much will depend on the tone he sets when this contretemps is done; will he beat a retreat or carry on as a critic? Certainly, the Marine veteran has been aggressive to this point, deploying every weapon in his arsenal against the longtime Democratic leader, prompting blowback from liberal pundits and some of his own constituents. He recruited House candidates who largely repudiated Pelosi on the trail, gathered signatures on a letter opposing her, and went on a media blitz warning of the dangers to Democrats if she’s reelected.
The two have traded barbs, with Moulton saying he was “100 percent” sure she will not be the next speaker and Pelosi dismissing his criticism out of hand. “I will be speaker of the House no matter what Seth Moulton says,” Pelosi told reporters earlier this month.
So far, Pelosi has neutralized opposition to her with carrots, not sticks. She convinced Representative Brian Higgins of New York to remove his name from Moulton’s letter by promising an effort to advance legislation to expand Medicare and by adding several new leadership positions for younger members. Moulton and Pelosi have not reached out to each other to negotiate.
Moulton’s predicament recalls a famous line from the HBO show “The Wire’’: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” With Pelosi firmly in charge as speaker, Moulton could face consequences, from missing out on plum committee assignments to facing stony silence when it comes to his legislative agenda.
While Pelosi has made no sign that she plans to retaliate, there’s a rich tradition of speakers taking revenge on critics. After securing his third term as speaker several years ago, Representative John Boehner of Ohio kicked two Republicans who opposed him off the influential Rules Committee.
For Moulton, it’s the Transportation Committee that beckons. The congressman was the managing director of a high speed rail company before heading to Washington, and he has had his eye on a seat on the committee for several years.
When Representative Mike Capuano lost the primary to incoming Representative Ayanna Pressley earlier this year, Massachusetts lost its seat on the Transportation Committee, opening up a spot.
But that seat is looking like a long shot now that Moulton is the face of the Democratic resistance to Pelosi.
Representative Richard Neal, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation, declined to answer questions about whether Moulton will be considered for the seat through a spokesman.
“I believe it is crucial to have someone from our state serving on that important committee. And I will urge my colleagues in the Democratic leadership to strongly consider this request,” Neal said in a statement.
Moulton already sits on the Armed Services Committee.
But House speakers control far more than committee assignments. With the gavel, Pelosi can decide whom to tap to write bills and amendments, as well as whose reelection coffers get an infusion of party cash.
“If I were him or his staff, I’d be watching over my shoulder in the weeks to come,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senators Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid.
One of Pelosi’s closest allies brushed off the idea she would be concerned with Moulton or any of the other rebels attempting to block her election after she became speaker.
“I don’t think she’s in the business of settling scores,” said Representative Jim McGovern, who is set to become the chair of the Rules Committee. “Nancy Pelosi is about issues and about what’s good for this country.”
Moulton’s allies hope any blowback would be brief.
“He’s going to pay a price for standing up like this, but in the past when there have been these kinds of pushes in the caucus leadership they tend to be forgotten pretty quickly,” said David Gergen, an informal adviser to Moulton.
Gergen added that he doesn’t believe Moulton is interested in pressuring Pelosi on policy issues in the way Tea Party members dogged Republican leadership. Moulton will likely continue making the case that House leadership needs to pass the torch to the next generation, but not remain a thorn in Pelosi’s side on her legislative agenda. “I think they’re fairly close together on policy,” Gergen said of Moulton and Pelosi.
“I believe once this process is over . . . Seth will be an important part of the Democratic caucus,” said Representative John Garamendi of California, who’s running for a leadership spot.
Moulton declined to comment for this article, but he argued in a statement that his push for new leadership has never been personal.
“Leader Pelosi wants to boil this down to a personal argument, but this is so much bigger than her,” he said in a statement. “It’s about the entire, stagnant, three-person leadership team and having a serious conversation about promoting leaders who reflect the future of our caucus.”