Nancy Pelosi in discussions with critics over possible leadership term limits

As she works to lock down the few remaining holdouts against her bid to reclaim the House speaker’s gavel, Nancy Pelosi and some of her critics are nearing an agreement to smooth her path to the speakership in exchange for leadership term limits.

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Under the terms of the agreement, which hasn’t been finalized, Pelosi would commit to limiting her speakership to at most four more years, and support term limits for the top three leadership positions in the caucus, according to three Democratic sources familiar with the negotiations.

The deal, which would go before the full Democratic caucus for a vote in January, would limit leaders to three terms of service, with the option of seeking a fourth term with the support of two-thirds of the caucus. It would apply retroactively to Pelosi and her top deputies, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, who have all served two terms as speaker, majority leader and majority whip when Democrats last controlled the House.

At least five “Never Nancy” Democrats are poised to back Pelosi on the floor in January if she endorses the proposal, and pledges to abide by it even if the caucus doesn’t ratify the rule change.

That could be enough to deliver Pelosi the gavel when the full House votes.

“There are various conversations going on about a path forward,” a Pelosi aide said Tuesday night. “Progress has been made and the conversations are constructive because all involved care about the institution of the House of Representatives.”

Earlier Tuesday, Democrats raised the possibility of imposing term limits on leaders and committee chairs, before deciding to postpone discussion, according to an aide in the room.

The conversations over term limits have prompted a sensitive debate in the larger caucus, dominated by long-serving Democrats, with all but one committee set to be controlled by veteran ranking members of the party.

Pelosi, in public and private, has resisted putting an end date on her potential speakership, arguing that it would make her a less effective leader. She strongly pushed on President Donald Trump’s aside about the speaker campaign in an Oval Office meeting on government funding Tuesday.

“Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

“Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats who just won a big victory,” she quickly replied.

But she has signaled willingness to discuss term limits for leadership positions, telling reporters last Thursday that she’s “always been sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed by our members on the subject.”

The conversation is a delicate one for House Democrats. While House Republicans have limited committee chair service to three consecutive terms, Democrats operate on a seniority-based system, which some minority members argue has helped them advance and gain influence.

David Zalubowski/AP, FILE
Rep. Ed Perlmutter speaks during a tour of the Amazon fulfillment center, May 3, 2018, in Aurora, Colo.

Prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the prospect of possible term limits ahead of internal caucus deliberations.

“To take this up now when we are in the majority, we have so much work to do, they have not governed for the last two years. That has to be our priority,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We don’t need to take up an issue that’s going to cause us to have conflict with each other.”

Reps. Ed Perlmutter, Linda Sanchez and Bill Foster, who met with Pelosi on Tuesday to discuss the leadership proposal, will discuss the potential arrangement with the larger group of “Never Nancy” Democrats on Wednesday. The trio - along with Reps. Filemon Vela and Seth Moulton, who helped organize the Tuesday effort - would all vote for Pelosi on the floor for speaker if she endorses the agreement.

It’s unclear if Hoyer, 79, and Clyburn, 78, would support such an arrangement.

“She’s not negotiating for me,” Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday of Pelosi’s discussions.

“I’m not for term limits,” he said. “I am for the intellect of the voter, whether it’s my constituency or my colleagues, being able to operate without such a constraint and choose whom they want when they want for leadership or representation.”

With Democrats set to gain 40 members in January, Pelosi can only afford to lose 17 votes on the floor vote for speaker and still win the gavel. Pelosi won the closed-door speaker vote among House Democrats 203-32, and roughly 20 Democrats have vowed to oppose her on the floor.

“There’s a balance I think that has to be struck,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, who is on track to become the next chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee after Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking member, won the Minnesota gubernatorial race. “Our problem is succession.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to see chaos on January 3rd, and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” Takano, who supports Pelosi, said of members trying to reach an agreement before the speaker vote. “I want a strong speaker to be able to move decisively and to be able to bring the caucus together.”

John Lawrence, Pelosi’s former chief of staff and the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship,” said Democrats would have to carefully weigh the value of possibly limiting the service of their leaders.

“A lot of legislation takes time to develop. A lot of the effectiveness of leaders comes from the gravitas they bring,” he said. “I don’t think the House wants to straight jacket itself.”