WASHINGTON — Joe Neguse, Colorado’s 34-year-old newly elected congressman, ran his pathbreaking bid for Congress on big ideas like offering health care for all, increasing the minimum wage, and ending the influence of special interests in the nation’s capital.
But now that he’s won, all anyone wants to ask him about is the swampiest of questions: Should Nancy Pelosi be speaker of the House?
“I just got to Washington yesterday,” Neguse said to one reporter this week, deflecting the Pelosi question. “I’m just learning as I go.”
Neguse, who will become the first black House member from his state when he’s sworn in in January, is part of a diverse and barrier-breaking class of young freshman House Democrats who were swept into office on promises to bring change to Washington. They want to fix the broken system. They want results.
Now, that rhetoric collides with a complicated reality on the Hill. Many in the new class explicitly promised not to back Pelosi for speaker or said they generally wanted fresh leadership or, like Neguse, dodged the question while on the campaign trail. But Pelosi has wielded power in the House for so long for a reason.
The 15-term San Francisco lawmaker racked up endorsements from nearly every branch of the Democratic apparatus and is launching a charm offensive to woo the newcomers who have freshly arrived in the city for their freshman orientation. She and her allies argue that the main argument against her — that she was a drag on the ticket — has evaporated with the midterm results, when Democrats gained the majority despite a barrage of negative advertising starring Pelosi.
Most importantly, no one has emerged to challenge Pelosi, leaving the “Never Nancy” freshmen and their allies among current members, led by Representative Seth Moulton of Salem, without an alternative candidate.
Moulton insists he is “100 percent” confident Pelosi doesn’t have the votes to be speaker and is gathering signatures on a letter of opposition to prove it. The letter has 17 Democrats signed on and is growing, which could be enough to block Pelosi’s bid on the House floor, when every Republican would probably vote against her.
Pelosi dismissed Moulton’s claim out of hand.
“I’m a busy person, but I will be the speaker of the House no matter what he said,” a confident Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol Wednesday.
She sarcastically noted that her opposition hasn’t put forward anyone to run against her. “Come on in, the water is warm,” she said in a taunting message to her so-far nonexistent Democratic opponents.
She has a point: Democrats are not lining up to challenge her.
Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who took on Pelosi for the top spot two years ago, said he will not run for speaker. Instead, he is encouraging Representatives Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Karen Bass of California to run.
In what could be history’s shortest-lived trial balloon, Fudge told reporters Wednesday she “just might” challenge Pelosi if no one else does.
Then, moments later, she said she was just joking.
Bass has not announced any intention of running.
But opponents of Pelosi’s leadership seem to have something up their sleeves.
Moulton says he is unconcerned by the lack of a challenger for Pelosi. “There’s a very practical political reason why no one’s come out. They don’t want to alienate Pelosi’s supporters,” Moulton said Tuesday.
He said he believes candidates will emerge once it’s clear she doesn’t have the votes to become speaker on the floor.
“The idea that leader Pelosi is the only one with the skill or the experience to do this is patently false,” Moulton said.
Many of the younger lawmakers with the most political chops are running for leadership spots down the ballot instead of challenging the 78-year-old Pelosi or her two top deputies, Steny Hoyer, 79, of Maryland, and Jim Clyburn, 78, of South Carolina. Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a Midwesterner who easily carried her Trump district, is running in a crowded race for the number-four leadership slot.
If Pelosi or her deputies are unable to find the votes, some of the people in those down-ballot races could emerge as challengers.
New members of Congress are right in the middle of this battle of egos while trying to find a place to live, hire a chief of staff, and figure out how to run district offices back home.
Their introduction to Pelosi’s first vote-counting operation came earlier than they expected. The lawmakers face pressure from Pelosi and her allies to make up their minds on the race, as well as appeals from the many other candidates running for other leadership positions.
Here’s a sampling of the wooing: Former vice president Al Gore is making calls to incoming members on behalf of Pelosi. So is Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Politico reported. And bigwigs in the Democratic caucus, like Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, who’s set to become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and can help these new members get their favorite bills or projects advanced, sent an open letter throwing his support behind Pelosi.
Pelosi’s allies insist the campaigning is not particularly intense.
“No freshman or freshwoman is going to leave this week with their arm broken,” joked Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland. “I think that the people running for offices have tried to be gentle and understanding of the newly elected people.”
Still, even members backing Pelosi acknowledge she faces a challenge.
She’s expected to easily get a majority of the Democratic caucus behind her in the closed-door election after Thanksgiving. But she also needs 218 votes on the House floor in early January to gain the speaker’s gavel. Assuming Democrats have about 230 members total, Pelosi will likely need to persuade some of those who vowed they wouldn’t back her while on the campaign trail to vote “present” or for her in January.
“They shouldn’t be asked to walk the plank on the first vote,” Ryan said.
Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said the new members are facing “personal pressure” because most Democrats don’t want a messy leadership fight to be the image of the first few days of the new Democratic majority.
“I really do think that at the end of the day what they’re going to see there is a solid majority in the caucus for Nancy Pelosi,” she said.
And Democrats want to get to the business of governing quickly, delivering on their campaign promises to protect health care coverage for preexisting conditions and pass an infrastructure bill.
“The emphasis now should be solely on governance,” Neal told the Globe. “And I don’t think there’s anybody who would understate her legislative ability.”
That’s the argument Democrats are hoping wins the day. But so far, the incoming freshmen who ran against Pelosi are sticking to their guns.
“I am not going to vote for her. No ifs, ands, or buts, under any circumstances,” incoming Representative Max Rose of New York said in an interview on Fox Monday.
After participating in a “class photo” with fellow freshmen outside the Capitol, incoming Representative Ayanna Pressley told the Globe she is undecided and is waiting to meet with all the candidates before making up her mind.
“My position has not changed,” she said. “I am uncommitted.”