Washington • Rep. Nancy Pelosi took a major step toward a historic second turn as House speaker on Wednesday, winning a strong majority in a Democratic nominating vote after striking a deal with a group of moderate holdouts and further isolating her ragtag opposition.
But Pelosi, D-Calif., still has to persuade about half of the 32 Democrats who opposed her nomination to support her in a planned Jan. 3 floor vote in which she must win a majority of the entire House, not just Democrats. A brief meeting with leaders of the opposition Wednesday ended in acrimony.
She now has a month — plus an unmatched political network and a pile of potential chits — to chip away at the opposition. Should she prevail, Pelosi would be the first person to reclaim the speaker’s gavel in 63 years, solidifying her historical standing as the first woman to serve in the job and assuming the role of the nation’s top Democrat to counter President Donald Trump.
"We go forward with confidence and humility," she said following the afternoon vote, dismissing her opposition: "Are there dissenters? Yes, but I expect to have a powerful vote as we go forward. Any other questions?"
Underscoring her clout, Pelosi won over a group of eight centrist Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who had agitated for procedural changes and threatened to withhold their votes. In a carefully negotiated deal, Pelosi agreed to some but not all of their demands — announcing the agreement just as Democrats piled into a Capitol Hill hearing room to cast their votes.
She remained at loggerheads, however, with a more intransigent group that has taken aim at the party leadership, calling for a shake-up of a top echelon inhabited by three lawmakers in their late 70s. Just before the vote was called, Pelosi met in her Capitol Hill office with three leaders of the group in a first round of negotiations but made no headway.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., one of the opposition leaders, called the talk "not terribly productive" and said the 203-to-32 vote, plus three blank ballots and one absentee, demonstrated that Pelosi does not have the absolute majority — 218 if all 435 members vote for an individual — that she will need in January.
"None of us wants to take this to a floor fight, but the voters have to be heard," Rice said. "We have to protect new members. And I'm hoping that we will have additional conversations in the future."
Rice said the dissident group — which includes roughly a dozen freshmen who pledged to oppose Pelosi during their campaigns, as well as a cadre of incumbents who have their own leadership grievances — is insisting on "a plan for leadership transition" that would open up the ranks for younger members.
Utah Rep.-elect Ben McAdams, a Democrat in the state’s 4th Congressional district, was among the dissenting votes.
But Pelosi has flatly rejected putting any expiration date on her decades-long political career, arguing that it would diminish her ability to lead her newly emboldened majority party and negotiate with Trump and Republicans. A Pelosi aide familiar with the meeting said she "listened closely to the trio's concerns" and did not rule out further negotiations.
Besides nominating the 78-year-old Pelosi on Wednesday, Democrats also elected Rep. Steny Hoyer, Md., 79, as majority leader and Rep. James Clyburn, S.C., 78, as majority whip. Both men ran unopposed and were elected on a voice vote.
But Democrats also injected new blood into the lower tier of the party leadership, picking Rep. Ben Ray Luján, N.M., 46, for the No. 4 position of assistant Democratic leader and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, N.Y., 48, as Democratic caucus chairman, the No. 5 position. Both are now front-runners to succeed Pelosi as the top House Democrat.
Jeffries defeated Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., — a 72-year-old, 10-term veteran with a strong following in the left wing of the party caucus — in a contest that ended on a sour note, with Lee suggesting that her age and gender played a key role in her 123-to-113 loss.
"That's something that women, especially women of color, African-American women, have to face," Lee told reporters. "It's here. It's everywhere."
But Jeffries's win was a clear demonstration of the desire for fresh faces in the top ranks after 16 years with Pelosi and Hoyer in the top two spots.
"The baby boomers, I think they had four, five presidents of the United States?" said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, a Jeffries ally. "A lot of people are saying it's our time to have that opportunity to also be in these leadership posts and be able to take the Democratic Party to that next level."
What remains to be seen is whether the ascension of Luján and Jeffries might help quell some of the unrest aimed at Pelosi. Her backers started making the case Wednesday that it should.
"If the case is that there is no transformation of leadership, that is now being eviscerated with one of the highest-ranking members in our caucus being someone who is in his fourth term and in his 40s," Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a 38-year-old Pelosi loyalist, said of Jeffries.
Pelosi sought to demonstrate the breadth of her support Wednesday by choosing a diverse cast of allies to place her name in nomination in the caucus meeting. They included Rep. Joe Kennedy, Mass., a young member of the legendary Democratic political family, and Rep. John Lewis, Ga., a civil rights leader and universally revered figure among House Democrats.
"Nancy, Nancy, Nancy," Lewis said, according to notes provided by a person inside the room. "We need her leadership, we need her vision — now more than ever before."
Pelosi's foes did not speak out against her in the meeting, according to lawmakers and aides, and her showing Wednesday was a marked improvement from her election as minority leader in 2016, when 63 Democrats went against Pelosi in the secret-ballot vote.
But the dissidents still have arithmetic on their side. Democrats are on track to claim a 234- or 235-seat majority when the winners of this month's midterm elections are sworn in next year. One race in California remains uncalled, with the Democrat leading.
That means Pelosi could lose as many as 17 Democratic votes, and The Washington Post counts 22 Democrats as having made firm statements of opposition.
But the opposition has been hampered by the fact that it has not been able to recruit any challenger to Pelosi, as well as by the perception that it represents a subset of the caucus that is whiter, more male and more moderate than the party at large.
"We stood up there and looked like America when we seconded her nomination," said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, a Pelosi ally. "I think it spoke volumes for why we should support her."
Meanwhile, Pelosi in the past two weeks has steadily eroded the opposition ranks, persuading one potential challenger, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, to back her, while others have shown openness to negotiations.
On Wednesday, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who signed a letter earlier this month vowing to oppose Pelosi, walked out of a morning meeting of Democrats at Pelosi's side as reporters surrounded the leader, prompting Lynch to whisper, "I have to talk to you."
Lynch, who appeared to waver in his opposition in a local TV interview Sunday, stood close to Pelosi as they talked for a few minutes, before breaking away.
Even some of her avowed opponents have left a smidgen of wiggle room in their positions.
"The only thing I know for sure is that I will not be voting for her," said Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J. — leaving open the option to abstain from the floor vote, which would help Pelosi by reducing the majority threshold.
But Pelosi allies and aides say it is old-school dealmaking — not procedural subterfuge — that is going to earn her the gavel next year. That was on display Wednesday with the Problem Solvers Caucus, which had been threatening to withhold its votes for months.
Three members of the group — Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Thomas Suozzi, D-N.Y., — met with Pelosi at her weekly morning huddle with the top Democrats on legislative committees, according to two Democrats present for the discussions.
There, they negotiated the final rules changes the centrist Democrats had been demanding, two of which they agreed to accept.
The leaders agreed to move bills that have two-thirds of House members as co-sponsors to a floor vote, while also giving the leadership discretion on when exactly to schedule the bills. They also agreed in principle to a demand to open up the amendment process by giving floor amendments supported by 20 members of each party a path to a vote — though they stopped short of an ironclad requirement.
In the end, it was enough to win over the group.
"Every Congress, I listen, I learn, we incorporate, we are invigorated by new members coming in," Pelosi said of her approach to winning support. "So this was no different than anything before."
The Washington Post’s John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.