How Pelosi beat the rebels and got her gavel back

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While the late President George H.W. Bush was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Dec. 4, Nancy Pelosi was several hundred feet away cobbling together a deal that would return her to the speaker’s chair.

Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a leader of a group of Democratic rebels trying to push Pelosi out of House leadership, had flown back to Washington to negotiate with her face-to-face. Pelosi had already flipped several critics and shown momentum in her bid to reclaim the gavel. Perlmutter’s group was under siege from Pelosi allies both in and outside the Capitol.

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But Pelosi still didn’t have the votes to become speaker. And she was ready to make a dramatic overture to lock down support. During the meeting in her office on the second floor of the Capitol, Pelosi told Perlmutter she was open to term limits on her leadership.

It was the first time Pelosi had expressed a willingness to accept an end-date on her power after 16 years atop the Democratic Caucus. It proved to be the decisive moment in Pelosi’s weeks-long slog to ensure she would be the first lawmaker since the legendary Sam Rayburn in the 1950s to win the speaker’s gavel a second time.

“The deal recognizes a limit to her speakership,” Perlmutter told reporters Thursday. “This really starts the change I’ve wanted to see.”

“We were shocked as sh–,” added an aide to another rebel Democrat.

The gambit worked. After a week of intense negotiations, Pelosi picked up the support of Perlmutter and six other lawmakers who swore they’d vote against her on the House floor — delivering her at least the 218 votes she needs to be elected speaker on Jan. 3.

The six-week battle over the speaker’s chair was vintage Pelosi. Relying on a mix of pressure tactics she’d sharpened during three decades in Congress, Pelosi waited out her critics, wore them down and then threw them a bone as they looked for a way out.

The group of anti-Pelosi rebels faced an uphill battle from the start. Pelosi maintained immense support within the caucus, and she had powerful allies outside Congress whipping for her. And opposition from the massive incoming class of freshmen wasn’t as strong as many had thought.

The rebels, meanwhile, wanted Pelosi gone — but that’s where their agreement ended. Her critics had different motivations for opposing her and different strategies for dethroning her. That discord ultimately weakened their hand during negotiations.

“People started to get cold feet and decided they didn’t want to do it. They were under a lot of pressure,” said a regretful Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a Pelosi critic who still plans to oppose her on the House floor. “The goal all along — until a week or two — was to get a new, younger generation speaker of the House that represented the country and the future of our party. That did not happen.”

The rebels did win a victory — just not the one they sought. Pelosi will be in the speaker’s chair in January, to the chagrin of most of Perlmutter’s group. She remains the face of the party and the new House Democratic majority and will become the most important Democrat in the nation, at least until the party anoints a presidential nominee.

Still, the significance of Pelosi’s concession to exit by 2022 can’t be overstated. Pelosi for years has resisted calls from a large bloc of her caucus to step down as leader. And Pelosi repeatedly rebuffed and dismissed rebel demands that she provide a date certain to retire, until this week.

“I’m satisfied with this result — that we have somebody with knowledge, experience, skill, tenacity, leading us,” Perlmutter said. “But at the same time, this thing’s beginning to move. And the opportunities for other people to rise are apparent and are going to happen.”

Freshmen upend the rebels’ plans

From the outset, the rebels set expectations too high.

Perlmutter and a band of a dozen incumbents hoped to combine forces with roughly 10 incoming freshmen who had promised to vote against Pelosi on the campaign trail. They planned to gather the signatures of 25 opponents on a letter and publicize it as a show of force against Pelosi. It would have been more than enough votes to block her from the gavel — Pelosi can only afford to lose 17 votes on the floor.

But the incumbents ran into an unexpected problem. Most of the Democratic candidates who knocked Pelosi during the midterm campaign wouldn’t sign their document.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the most high-profile rebels in the group, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), had told his colleagues that he’d win over the incoming freshmen, even referring to these lawmakers as “my candidates,” according to multiple Democratic sources.

As a former Marine Corps officer, Moulton had a personal connection to the anti-Pelosi candidates who had military backgrounds. He campaigned with them, raised money for them and worked alongside VoteVets, a progressive political organization supporting veterans running for office, to try to get them elected.

Moulton told these members-elect that Pelosi was going to be ousted and that it would be good for them politically to join the movement.

But Moulton oversold his sway, rebel sources complained. Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot running in New Jersey, had released an ad against Pelosi and campaigned with Moulton. But she wouldn’t go anywhere near the letter. Several other freshmen who received help from Moulton also avoided the letter.

Pelosi had neutered Moulton right under his nose. Just days after the election, she phoned VoteVets’ Chairman Jon Soltz and asked for his help wooing the incoming freshmen.

Soltz had been working with Moulton but also had a close relationship with Pelosi. Soltz decided his group would remain neutral. But he gave the candidates advice that proved critical to helping Pelosi, sources said: Think about the long game. To be an effective legislator, you will have to work with the next speaker — which more likely than not would be Pelosi.

The advice worked. The candidates refused to sign the rebels’ document. And when Moulton lobbied harder for their signatures, he repelled them even more. In fact, some female veterans told other Democrats that they were annoyed with Moulton, these lawmakers said, concluding that they were being used for Moulton’s own political gain.

Rebel defections mount

The anti-Pelosi forces also ran into some strategic roadblocks. It quickly became clear each rebel had a different motivation for signing on to the letter of opposition — and different limits for the pressure that came with opposing Pelosi.

“From the beginning, I think there was an understanding that some members really wanted to see change immediately. Others would have been satisfied with a less fixed and definite commitment,” said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.). “That was the tension.”

Pelosi also dramatically ramped up her pressure tactics, launching an assault against the group from all sides.

Democratic Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania weighed in with their state delegations on Pelosi’s behalf. Labor union leaders including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and United Brotherhood of Carpenters President Doug McCarron pressed the critics to back her. Soon, former Vice President Al Gore, ex-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Denis McDonough were lobbying lawmakers to get behind Pelosi.

“When you know something is right and needs to happen, even though it might be unpopular, you have to give voice to it. And accept the consequences of that,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), one of the rebels.

Just before Congress left town for Thanksgiving, the anti-Pelosi faction saw a ray of hope. Rebel member Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a well-respected former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, floated her name as a potential challenger to Pelosi. Pelosi’s backers had rapped her opponents for failing to offer an alternative to the California Democrat. Fudge’s potential bid electrified the rebels and much of the media.

And then it was over. On Nov. 19, the same morning the rebels planned to publicly release their letter opposing Pelosi, Fudge suddenly pulled her name off the document — a sign that she was getting cold feet.

In fact, she was. Almost immediately after Fudge floated her name for speaker, outside groups attacked her as being anti-LGBT. And Congressional Black Caucus members she was close with — including black women who’d spent years as lawmakers hoping to see one of their own in the speaker’s chair — said they couldn’t support her.

That’s when Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking black lawmaker, stepped in to mediate between Fudge, his close friend, and Pelosi. Behind-the-scenes, the South Carolina Democrat had organized a meeting between the two before the Thanksgiving recess. At the end of their discussion, Fudge left the room having doubts about challenging Pelosi.

Fudge returned home, consulted with her pastor and family, then decided she wouldn’t run. It also helped that Pelosi dangled before Fudge a position she had long desired: a subcommittee chairmanship overseeing election issues.

“We just came to the decision that this was not the time, but more importantly, ultimately decided that as we go into this majority that I would rather try to at least make it seem like we’re on the same page and there’s some unity in the caucus,” Fudge told POLITICO in an interview.

Before Fudge conceded, however, news broke that a former colleague and political ally Fudge had defended years ago was suspected of murdering his wife. Years earlier, Fudge lobbied a judge for a lighter sentence for the man following his conviction on spousal abuse. Fudge’s letter asking for leniency went viral, a huge embarrassment for the Ohio Democrat.

Fudge bailed on any run for speaker that very night and backed Pelosi — even though she said “of course” Pelosi was behind the attacks on her, something Pelosi’s offices denies.

The brutal offensive against Fudge rattled the rebels, and Fudge’s speedy surrender triggered a “moment of panic” among some other members in the group, according to Democratic sources.

Other dominoes began falling quickly. Rep. Brian Higgins, who also signed the letter, broke from the group to endorse Pelosi the next day. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a fellow New Yorker, had lobbied Higgins to change his mind. So too did incoming Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), a close Pelosi ally.

After a simple promise from Pelosi to try to get his Medicare bill to the House floor, Higgins caved — and expressed remorse.

“I shouldn’t have signed the letter,” Higgins said. “I had my reasons for breaking from the leader, I expressed those reasons very clearly, but I didn’t need a group to represent that. … I could have gotten that [deal with Pelosi] regardless.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), another letter signer, threw his support in return for some more legislative promises from Pelosi, including on infrastructure.

The three desertions came as other rebels were also being pummeled back home.

During a town hall in his Massachusetts district, Moulton was grilled over his anti-Pelosi stance. Local press lit him up for orchestrating a coup against her. Days later, without so much as warning his fellow rebels, Moulton’s office told The Washington Post that the group was open to negotiating with Pelosi to find a way to resolve the standoff — a possibility they hadn’t raised yet.

Moulton’s move infuriated many group members, who accused him of turning on them to save his own skin. Indeed, most had no idea Moulton was planning to float the suggestion, which almost certainly undercut their own bargaining position.

Moulton only made the situation worse for himself a few days later. He asked for a meeting with Pelosi to start talks between the two sides — then misled his fellow rebels about who initiated the discussion, according to three sources familiar with the incident.

Moulton told Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) — perhaps Pelosi’s staunchest critics in the group — that Pelosi requested the meeting. In reality, he had gone to Pelosi’s staff and said he wanted to sit down.

It created an awkward dynamic before a terrible meeting. Rice walked into Pelosi’s office and said, “Thank you for calling this meeting.”

“I didn’t ask for this meeting,” Pelosi scoffed.

An awkward silence ensued, and the meeting unraveled from there with both sides digging in.

Perlmutter steps in

It was then that Perlmutter decided to take a different, more personal tack with Pelosi.

The Colorado Democrat has a close relationship with Pelosi, far better than any of the other rebels. But while he liked Pelosi, Perlmutter thought she should step aside after 16 years as Democratic leader.

Still, the bond between the two was clear. During a recent meeting between moderate Democrats and Pelosi, the two surprised everyone when they hugged. Perlmutter at the time was advocating for rules changes to make it harder for Pelosi to be speaker.

Yet Pelosi reached out privately to Perlmutter over the Thanksgiving break to kickstart talks, and the two decided to see if they could work out an agreement. A series of Perlmutter-Pelosi phone calls led to the Dec. 4 meeting that Democratic members and aides said “broke the dam.”

On Dec. 5, the morning after Pelosi offered to consider term limits on her speakership, Perlmutter told the rebels the news during a conference call.

Some in the group were already looking for an exit ramp. Pelosi’s offer “opened up a whole new world of possibilities that they didn’t think would be real,” a source close to the group said.

Others resisted. Schrader warned the group not to take the deal and tried to remind them of their original goal: taking out Pelosi.

Perlmutter reached out to Sanchez to bring her deeper into the talks with Pelosi. As vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, Sanchez knew the ins and outs of the caucus rules, a necessary skill if the group was going to negotiate such a monumental change. Without Sanchez’s savvy, some rebels feared they’d be outmaneuvered by Pelosi.

Foster also became a key member of the faction negotiating with Pelosi. Pelosi had reached out to the Illinois Democrat earlier in the process to ask what he wanted, but Foster made clear he wasn’t interested in a one-off deal.

“At the very outset of my individual discussions with her, I said my focus was on the institutional change that I thought was overdue,” Foster said in an interview.

It was Foster who first came up with up with the term-limits formula that became the basis of the rebels’ deal with Pelosi.

With the support from most of the rebels, the trio — Perlmutter, Foster and Sanchez — got to work.

“When [Pelosi] started floating specific concepts involving term limits for top leadership positions, that was the first time we saw a path to success on the negotiations,” Foster said.

Perlmutter, Sanchez and Foster drafted different versions of term limits for party leaders, as well as options for limits on committee chairs.

The various proposals were circulated among the rebels on Dec. 6. For the group, there were two outstanding issues: Would the term limits be retroactive, going back to when Democrats were in the majority nearly a decade ago? And which members of Democratic leadership would the limits apply to?

After intensive discussions, including Democrats outside the rebel group, the anti-Pelosi faction decided to focus on term limits covering just Pelosi, Clyburn and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

At this point it was clear some of the rebels, like Schrader, would never sign on to any deal with Pelosi. But the lead negotiators were confident they could secure enough support to deliver Pelosi the speakership if she would agree to their terms.

Perlmutter worked the phones over the weekend, speaking to Pelosi several times. On Monday, Dec. 10, the rebel group reconvened. The contours of a deal were coming together, but several rebels who worried they would lose their leverage over Pelosi were still insisting that the term limits be voted on by the full caucus before the speaker roll-call vote on Jan. 3.

Sanchez, Foster and Perlmutter huddled with other senior Democrats that night to see if there was any time on the schedule that would allow the full caucus — including incoming freshmen who weren’t due back in town until January — to vote on the plan.

They determined there was no time before the speaker vote to try to force through a rules change. At that point, according to several sources, Pelosi’s decision to make a public statement supporting the change — and agreeing to abide by the terms even if the caucus didn’t — became a necessary ingredient to securing the rebels’ support.

The rebel group held another call on Tuesday morning where they finalized the terms of their potential deal.

In the afternoon, after Pelosi returned from a tense televised meeting with President Donald Trump over the border wall, Perlmutter, Foster and Sanchez huddled in Pelosi’s office. They presented the terms of the accord and promised six — possibly even seven — rebel votes in return.

That was enough to clinch the deal. Pelosi would have the votes to win the speakership — and avoid a nasty floor fight in the process — and the rebels had ensured that Pelosi’s tenure would have a clear end date.

“We won a lot of seats on Nov. 6 and folks want to enjoy the majority,” Perlmutter said Thursday. “Today is the first day I’ve really gotten to think about being in the majority and enjoying it.”