U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) held out until the last possible moment before publicly announcing his support for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) bid for House speaker.
The House Democratic Caucus met Wednesday to choose its leaders for the congressional session that begins in January. Welch had refused to declare his position until just before that meeting. According to Welch, Pelosi got 203 votes, more than enough to secure the caucus' nomination. She will need at least 218 votes in January when the full House elects a speaker.
Welch had sought changes in how the House is governed, claiming that too much authority has migrated to its leadership. In a statement released before the vote, Welch said that Pelosi "has personally committed to me that she will reform the legislative process, make it more transparent, and allow the diverse ideas of all members to be considered."
Welch elaborated in a phone interview following the caucus. During the speakership of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Welch said, "power was concentrated in the speaker's office. The committees were completely bypassed." He said that major pieces of legislation were written by leadership and rushed through with little or no review or testimony. Restoring committee power, he added, would "produce better legislation."
When asked whether Pelosi might be weakened by having to negotiate for support, Welch demurred. "She ended up with 203 votes," he said. "That's a pretty solid majority." Thirty-two caucus members voted "no" on Pelosi, while three returned blank ballots, and one member — a Pelosi supporter — was absent.
Pelosi will need at least 218 votes in January, when the full House will elect a speaker. Welch doesn't see that as a problem. "She would need 14 votes out of the 35 who didn't vote for her [Wednesday]," Welch said. "That's very doable when the choice is between Pelosi and the Republican nominee. It's one thing for a Democrat to vote no in caucus. It's another to vote yes for a Republican."
Welch is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that seeks common ground on key issues. Nine Democrats in that caucus signed a letter indicating they would withhold their support for Pelosi without specific changes in House rules. Welch distanced himself from the nine. "I was on board with their goals but not their tactics," he said. "The group issued an ultimatum to Pelosi. I don't believe in that approach."
The outcome was the same in the end. On Wednesday, the Problem Solvers reached agreement with Pelosi and threw their support behind her.
There were no contests for the second and third slots in caucus leadership. U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will remain in the No. 2 spot, though his title will change from minority whip to majority leader. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) will be majority whip.
The only contested race was for caucus chair. U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) prevailed over U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) by a 10-vote margin. Jeffries, 48, will join a leadership team that features two 78-year-olds (Pelosi and Clyburn) and the 79-year-old Hoyer. (Lee is 72.)
Pelosi, Clyburn and Hoyer have pledged to develop a new generation of leaders with an eye toward transition at an unspecified time in the future. Welch, 71, points to Jeffries' election as evidence of "a transition that's under way."
It must be noted that age seemed to be a concern only when it came to women in leadership. There was no organized opposition to Hoyer or Clyburn, for instance.
The remaining organized barrier to Pelosi's election is a group of 16 Democrats who signed a letter opposing her nomination without a specific plan to transition to younger leadership. According to the New York Times, three of the 16 met with Pelosi Wednesday and emerged unsatisfied.
Welch said that Pelosi was wise to avoid specifics. "It makes no sense to give a date certain," he said. "Look at what happened to Paul Ryan. He effectively became a lame duck when he announced he wouldn't seek reelection."