WASHINGTON — Sixteen dissident Democrats said Monday that they will vote to deny Rep. Nancy Pelosi another stint as House speaker, a show of defiance that puts her opponents on the cusp of forcing a seismic leadership shake-up as their party prepares to take the majority.
Their pledge to oppose Pelosi, D-Calif., both in an internal caucus election Nov. 28 and a Jan. 3 floor vote, delivered in a letter sent to Democratic colleagues, comes as Pelosi has marshaled a legion of supporters on and off Capitol Hill to make her case.
But her opponents said Monday that they are convinced that it is time to select a new leader.
“We are thankful to Leader Pelosi for her years of service to our Country and to our Caucus,” they wrote. “However, we also recognize that in this recent election, Democrats ran on and won on a message of change.”
Pelosi has expressed complete confidence that she will retake the speaker’s gavel in January — eight years after she lost it following massive Republican gains in the 2010 midterms and 16 years after she was first elevated to the top Democratic leadership post in the House.
“Come on in, the water’s fine,” she said Friday about a potential leadership challenge.
A senior Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the developments, highlighted the fact that 94 percent of the House Democratic caucus did not sign the letter.
“If your strategy relies upon Nancy Pelosi giving up, you will lose every single time,” the aide said.
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The signers might not be able to force Pelosi out themselves. The size of the Democratic majority remains in flux, but Democrats have won 232 seats, according to the Associated Press, with four races still undecided.
All those races have Republican incumbents, but the Democratic challenger is ahead in only one. If the current leads hold in the uncalled races, Democrats would have won 233 seats — a 16-seat majority.
That means Pelosi could lose as many as 15 Democratic votes when she stands for election as speaker on Jan. 3. One of the 16 signers, Ben McAdams of Utah, is now trailing Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, and might never cast a speaker vote.
Not signing the letter is Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who has publicly opposed Pelosi and is mulling a run against her. Fudge said Friday that she would not make a final decision on whether to run until next week at the earliest.
Another five Democrats — Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Reps.-elect Jason Crow of Colorado, Jared Golden of Maine, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — have made firm statements saying they would not vote for Pelosi but did not sign the letter.
Reenie Kuhlman, a spokeswoman for Lamb, said “nothing has changed” in light of his decision not to sign the letter.
“Congressman Lamb has said publicly several times since the election that he will not vote for Leader Pelosi for speaker in caucus or on the floor,” she said.
Representatives for the other four Democrats did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Democratic aides involved in the effort to oust Pelosi but not authorized to comment publicly said they are confident additional lawmakers would oppose Pelosi in a floor vote beyond those who signed the letter.
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Also Monday, Rep. Diana DeGette announced suddenly that she was abandoning her bid for the No. 3 job in the House Democratic leadership, ending the only official challenge to one of the party’s top leaders.
DeGette, D-Colo., had challenged Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking African-American in House leadership, for the majority whip post. But facing a backlash from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, DeGette dropped her bid — ensuring, for now, that Clyburn will remain in the top ranks.
Any major shake-up in the Democratic leadership now depends on whether a small group of incumbents and freshmen can muster the votes to keep Pelosi from seizing the House speaker’s gavel in January. If that bid is successful, it could kick off a wholesale scramble that could also threaten Clyburn, the current assistant Democratic leader, and Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is seeking to move from whip to majority leader when Democrats take control in January.
“Since my announcement, I have been heartened by the backing I have received across the caucus,” DeGette said in a statement. “Over the last few days, however, many of my supporters have expressed concern about pressure they are receiving to return the three senior leaders to their posts without opposition.”
DeGette, who has long served as chief deputy whip, launched her campaign after the Nov. 6 election by touting her experience in rounding up support for difficult pieces of legislation — implicitly making the case that Clyburn, 78, was not up to or interested in the task.
But the challenge upset backers of Clyburn, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman and a revered figure among the caucus’s roughly 50 African-Americans — who bristled at the notion that the caucus’s top tier could be all-white.
“Out of the three of the leadership positions, he is the only one with announced opposition,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., the current Congressional Black Caucus chair, said last week. “I just think it is offensive and insulting.”