WASHINGTON – A small but determined band of House Democratic rebels – including one Texan – have spent the last several days assuring the world they have the votes to deprive House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of the speaker's gavel as the party prepares to take back control of the chamber.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville has been among the leaders of the group helping cast doubt on Pelosi's political future ahead of a key private vote within the chamber's Democratic caucus scheduled for early December.
"I am 100% confident we can forge new leadership," Vela told CNN earlier this week, echoing the confidence that some of his fellow rebels have exhibited in recent days.
This is no small fight.
Pelosi is such a fixture as the Democratic House leader that most members have never served under a different person leading their charge. To take her down would mark the end of an era in Washington. If Vela and his fellow rebels fall short of their goal, it will mean a near-certain sentence to the political dog house.
"I intend to win the speakership with Democratic votes. I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be Speaker of the House," Pelosi said at a Wednesday news conference.
"Come on in, the water's warm," she added.
Pelosi has spent nearly 16 years as the Democratic leader for a simple reason: She is better than anyone else in Congress at locking down votes.
She is also a figure of outsized historical proportions. She is the only woman to have served as speaker of the U.S. House. Through sheer stamina and her wits she has politically outlived countless rivals, Democratic and Republican alike.
If she is to hold onto the gavel, Pelosi will only need to secure the votes of a majority of Democrats at next month's meeting. The tougher vote will take place when new members are sworn in on Jan. 3. On that day, all House members will publicly announce their vote for speaker on the U.S. House floor and she will need a majority of the entire chamber.
One non-Texas member interviewed by the Tribune suggested her path to the speakership could rest on whether some of the opposition to her vote "present" rather than for another speaker candidate. Any such votes would lower the threshold she would need for a majority but not count against her.
The Huffington Post reported on Wednesday that a list of 17 Democrats publicly oppose Pelosi. Vela is the only Texan currently on that list. Depending on how some unresolved races around the country shake out, it could only take somewhere in the ballpark of this number to bring her down, even if most Democrats support her for speaker.
The opposition to Pelosi within her own party comes from two camps. One is tenacious and includes a band of mostly junior members who were elected after 2012. Vela falls into this camp. Efforts to reach him for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
The second group includes newly elected future members who campaigned with promises not to support Pelosi.
Texas is sending at least four new Democrats to Congress – Colin Allred, Veronica Escobar, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia, who made her support for Pelosi clear in a tweet Thursday evening. Escobar has also publicly pledged support to Pelosi, but neither Allred nor Fletcher have made their positions clear, according to the Washington Post and other media reports.
Pelosi allies have long thought she would secure the votes needed, but there is much unease about her prospects within the Democratic world. The math looked daunting on Thursday, but Pelosi's reputation as best whip of her generation has taken on such a mythical mystique that most members and Hill staffers interviewed for this story concede they have no clue how she pulls out the votes needed, but they are confident she will find them somewhere.
Republicans have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last eight years tying Democratic candidates to Pelosi in an effort to cast those candidates as out-of-touch liberals.
Vela was a prominent Pelosi backer two years ago, when several of the same members sought to bring her down. But about six months later, he changed his tune when House Democrats lost a high profile special election in Georgia. At that point, he openly called for her to resign from leadership.
"She just doesn't help our candidates in those swing districts with independent voters and Republican voters," Vela told CNN at the time.
It's a premise that U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo questioned publicly, as did many other Democratic members privately.
“For anybody that says if you back Pelosi we’re not going to get the majority, we know they ran millions of ads in Texas and other states, and we still won,” he said.
Cuellar, co-chair of the Blue Dogs Caucus, a coalition of conservative Democrats, said he would back Pelosi if she would make changes to some rules.
“We certainly want to have some Blue Dogs on committees (and) make sure that blue dogs are reflected in the leadership,” the Laredo Democrat said. “If she does that I’ll be supportive of her and I’ve supported her in the past."
Vela is also a member of the Blue Dogs.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin said he backed Pelosi and emphasized that no one else has thrown their hat in the ring.
“I think she’s the most effective person and really maybe the only alternative at this point,” Doggett said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, also said Pelosi had her vote. Rumors have swirled on Capitol Hill that Ohio congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus with Jackson Lee, may challenge Pelosi. Jackson Lee said she remained supportive of Pelosi.
“I’m just waiting to see what happens,” Jackson Lee said. “As I’ve said, I’ve made my commitment to Speaker Pelosi, but I’m a believer in bringing all people together. And that’s what I expect to be happening.”
On Wednesday, Vela tweeted his support for Fudge to replace Pelosi as speaker.
A handful of non-Texas members expressed deep frustration over the whole intra-family dispute.
Given that Pelosi was at the helm as her party when it finally recaptured the majority, there is an impetus among longtime members to allow her to retire gracefully. But also, most of those rebel members opposed to her came into office after Democrats lost power in the 2010 elections. Managing a majority is a far more complex task than running a minority caucus.
More seasoned Democratic members remember Pelosi's prodigious – but brief – tenure as speaker that included helping moving President Obama's 2010 health care law through both chambers. There's a sense among these members that the party needs her seasoned guidance to navigate the rough terrain of sparring with the Trump administration.
The leadership drama underscored an otherwise happy meeting for the House Democratic Caucus Tuesday, the first such gathering since Election Day. House Democratic members fielded questions from reporters as they entered a large conference room in the U.S. Capitol basement. That many of the attendees were joyfully disoriented – the room is reserved for the majority caucus – was a reminder that the party hasn't controlled the chamber since 2011.
The members-elect from Texas were in attendance. That group include retired Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones. She narrowly trails U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in a race for the Texas 23rd District that remains in limbo.
The dean of each state delegation introduced the newly elected future members of Congress. U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, did the honors for the new Texans, according to two sources in the room. One of the biggest moments of applause came when Johnson introduced U.S. Rep.-elect Colin Allred, in part because he ousted U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Dallas Republican who led the House GOP takeover of 2010.
Beyond this leadership race, Democrats will enter the new term with a caucus that sprawls across the political spectrum. Cuellar, the Laredo Democrat, worried his colleagues could swing too far to the liberal end of things, isolating more moderate voters who recently sent incoming House members Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher to Washington.
“We have to keep in mind that they beat Republicans, and we have to make sure that they come back and come back after that,” Cuellar said.
“I’ve always said if you’re going to fall on the sword, make sure it’s worth it," he added.
Republicans held their House leadership elections on Wednesday and elected another Californian, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, as their minority leader.
Omar Rodriguez-Ortiz contributed to this report.