HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Pelosi will likely know best when she doesn't have the votes to stay in power

Chad Pergram

We’ll all know when it’s time for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to go.

That’s because she’ll tell us.

Nobody counts votes better than Pelosi -- whether it’s ginning up support for ObamaCare or marshaling votes for her own leadership contest.

Some Democrats turned on her when Democrats failed to get within striking distance of reclaiming the House last fall. Those same Pelosi critics returned to the cutlery drawer this week when Democrats wore the collar, going 0 for 4 this year, in a series of special House elections.

We’ll know if and when Pelosi decides to step down from her leadership post or retire from Congress -- because she’ll know, too. Pelosi will know if she has the support of House Democrats to continue.

Following last fall’s elections, Pelosi faced an internal challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, for the top House Democratic leadership position.

One evening, Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post and I staked out the route that leads from Pelosi’s office, through the Capitol’s “Rayburn Room,” to the House Democratic Cloakroom and on to the House floor.

Sure enough, Pelosi came by a few moments later. We asked if she commanded enough support from her colleagues to survive Ryan’s insurrection. What was her vote prediction? The hall was crowded and it was hard to hear above the din. As she went into the cloakroom, I thought Pelosi replied that she had “three-fourths” of her caucus.

“Three-fourths?” I asked to clarify as the leader disappeared into the cloakroom.

Without missing a beat, Pelosi stuck her head back around the door of the cloakroom and into the hall.

“Two-thirds, Chad,” she corrected. “Two-thirds.”

Democrats cast their ballots for minority leader in a closed-door meeting a few days later. Pelosi vanquished Ryan.

She garnered precisely 67 percent of the vote.

Democrats did well to even compete in this year’s special elections. All of the vacant seats tilted heavily toward Republicans. But all the losing streak did was embolden Pelosi’s critics and provide them a forum in which to air their grievances.

“If we are to regain the majority in 2018 in the House, we have to have new leadership,” said Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

Republicans turned to a familiar playbook in this week’s special House election in Georgia, the Democrats’ fourth loss. They linked Democrat Jon Ossoff to Pelosi to help Republican Karen Handel keep the seat for the GOP.  

Pelosi’s name recognition is high. Her negatives are high. She’s unpopular in the south and rural Midwest where Democrats need to capture House seats to reclaim the majority. That baggage hamstrings Pelosi from traveling to those venues to campaign for Democratic candidates. It forces Democrats to erect firewalls between themselves and their leader.

That’s why some Democrats believe it’s time to bounce Pelosi. She’s served as the top Democrat in the House since early 2003.

“It’s a problem,” one Midwestern House Democrat told Fox News.

Some Democrats close to Pelosi indicate she may have to make a choice over the next year. Should she stick around with the wing-and-a-prayer hope that Democrats win back the House, capitalizing on President Trump’s chaos?

That would triumphantly return Pelosi to the House Speaker’s suite at the Capitol for the first time since January 2011.

Or could Pelosi decide to leave early and rob Republicans of a foil? Would that move give Democrats the chance to capture the House?

Some House Democrats concede privately that such a personal sacrifice could be the salve the party needs. However, the gambit runs against Pelosi’s DNA. She always stays and fights. The latter move far from guarantees success. And let’s make things clear. At this stage, Nancy Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.

“I love the arena. I thrive on competition,” Pelosi said Friday on Capitol Hill, daring those who want her gone to do their best. “When it comes to personal ambition and having fun on TV, have your fun.”

Pelosi characterized herself as a “master legislator.” She declared she was “worth the trouble.” And finally, Pelosi fired off this munition to her detractors: “(The) decision about how long I stay is not up to them.”

That’s the chutzpah that drives some House Democrats crazy.

A senior House Democratic member who asked they not be identified told Fox News that Pelosi did herself “no favors” with those lines. The lawmaker added that the remarks revealed her “hubris” and that she was “blind” to her impact.

A longtime Democratic source close to Pelosi tells Fox News that she  routinely evaluates her standing with Democrats. The source said Pelosi “would never do something to hurt the caucus.” The Pelosi ally dismissed calls for her to disappear as normal in politics, noting that one side always “views the opposition leader with supernatural evil.”

Consider how Democrats framed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.,  and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

The Pelosi ally questioned whether GOP efforts to link Democratic candidates to Pelosi in fact worked.

“Is it turning votes or reaffirming votes?” asked the source, who added that voters who despise Pelosi “couldn’t name three other members of Congress.”

That said, some Democrats are revved up.

“It’s as real as it gets,” said one House Democrat about concern over Pelosi. “I’ve never seen people this torqued. She’d be out if there was a clear plan in place for secession. The question is, where does this end?”

The problem is that the fate of Pelosi is tied inextricably to her long-time rival, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

There is also a connection to Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

The troika represents different wings of the Democratic Caucus. Prying one loose doesn’t necessarily propel one of the other two to the top spot. Moreover, a Pelosi departure creates a void not necessarily filled by either Hoyer and Clyburn.

That’s why some Democrats ask why only Pelosi should be on the ropes. What about the other two?

“The problem is that you can’t replace somebody with nobody,” said one senior Democrat close to Pelosi.

Republicans struggled with the same issue in the fall of 2015 when the conservative House Freedom Caucus wanted to remove then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Those who wanted to replace Boehner didn’t have an immediate successor in mind. Republicans quickly burned through House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.,  in less than a week. Then there was a dalliance with Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. -- perhaps running on a “ticket” alongside an embattled McCarthy.

Republicans finally settled on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Keep in mind that Ryan said for years, let alone days before taking the speaker’s gavel, that he didn’t want the job.

This is why leadership elections are not “partisan” politics, but “particle” politics. The events that influence who climbs the leadership ladder are decided at the sub-atomic political level.

If Pelosi were to depart, could her successor be the natural number two in Hoyer? Or could there be another trio on the horizon? Try House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.; Vice Caucus Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.; and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La.

In Crowley, Sanchez and Richmond, Democrats score political, geographic and ethnic diversity, hitting all constituencies of their caucus. That threesome could be the next generation of Democratic leaders. But the sub-atomic quarks and leptons haven’t yet aligned yet.

“Every leader should have the courage of knowing when to step down,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D.N.Y., one of Pelosi’s most-vocal critics. “We’re not going to do something in secret away from the caucus.”

Rice says she and others won’t try to stage a coup. That nearly happened to Gingrich when a rump group of Republicans nearly overthrew the him in the summer of 1998. But from that point forward, Gingrich’s days were numbered. He left the speakership after the 1998 midterm election.

Is this episode for Pelosi similar to Gingrich’s reckoning? Unclear. Many Democrats don’t think she’s going anywhere.

“She’s like Trump,” said one senior House Democrat who’s had his differences with Pelosi. “She could shoot somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and nothing would happen.”