Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker from 2007 to 2011, has steered the House Democrats for the last 16 years. Now, she is again on the path to the top job of speaker. But it won't be easy.

US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi celebrates the Democrats winning a majority in the US House of Representatives in the US midterm elections during a Democratic election night party in Washington, US November 6, 2018.
US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi celebrates the Democrats winning a majority in the US House of Representatives in the US midterm elections during a Democratic election night party in Washington, US November 6, 2018. (Reuters)

Now that the Democrats have won control of the US House of Representatives, they need to choose a leader and that means solving one of their toughest puzzles: Nancy Pelosi.

A contest among the Democrats for the House's top job of speaker will play out over the next 10 weeks or so, with the formidable 78-year-old San Francisco liberal at the centre.

Pelosi has been clear that she wants to be speaker of the House again. She made history from 2007 to 2011 as the first woman speaker, a powerful position second in the line of emergency US presidential succession, after the vice president.

During the congressional campaigns that just ended, about 60 Democratic House candidates called for new leadership, registering indirect dissatisfaction with Pelosi, who has become a punching bag for Republicans.

That level of unrest means the Democrats' first order of business as the House majority will be to decide whether to put the speaker's gavel back in Pelosi's hands, or not.

“None of that frightens me. It’s what I anticipate, what I expect and what I thrive on,” Pelosi said last month at a Harvard University forum.

'...enough of division'

At a victory celebration in Washington on Tuesday, Pelosi said a Democratic House “will work for solutions that bring us together because we have all had enough of division.”

She was flanked by No 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer and No 3 House Democrat James Clyburn in a sign that the three could aim to lead the chamber in the new Congress that convenes in early January. 

Pelosi made no mention of the upcoming party leadership election.

For 16 years, Pelosi has steered the House Democrats, serving first as minority leader, then speaker, then minority leader again after the 2011 Republican takeover of the chamber. Her path back to the top job is clear.

First, she must capture a majority of Democrats in a behind-closed-doors November 28 party leadership election. No certain rival to Pelosi has emerged but there are possible challengers.

Two years ago, in the internal party race for minority leader, 63 Democrats voted for Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, but Pelosi received 134 votes.

On Sunday, Ryan was asked on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures" programme if he would challenge Pelosi.

"There are a number of candidates that are having conversations that are talking about running," he said. "I will say it’s not going to be a coronation. Somebody is going to run for leadership.

"The American people want a change. I think the Democrats want a change. So we’re going to have that discussion starting on Wednesday. ... I want to be a part of that discussion."

Clyburn won't challenge 

Clyburn, a 13-term congressman from South Carolina, has told reporters that he will not challenge Pelosi directly but will run for speaker if she does not have enough votes.

Many Democrats have said the No 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, also is waiting in the wings. But at ages 78 and 79, respectively, neither Clyburn nor Hoyer represents the kind of "new blood" that some younger Democrats seek.

A handful of more junior lawmakers are in the frame, as well. 

One is Louisiana's Cedric Richmond, 45, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which recently sent a letter to lawmakers saying that if there is a leadership change, it wanted one of the top two Democratic leadership spots, a Democratic aide said. Clyburn is also a caucus member.

Other potential candidates 

Ben Ray Lujan, 46, New Mexico is the current chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which coordinates House Democrats' election efforts. He appeared with Pelosi before reporters on Tuesday and said he was confident that Democrats would win a House majority.

Two others sometimes tagged as potential party leaders are Hakeem Jeffries, 48, a New Yorker who is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Cheri Bustos, 57, from a northwestern Illinois district that President Donald Trump won in 2016.

If Pelosi prevails at the party level, she would become the Democrats' candidate for speaker in a public roll call vote in early January by all 435 House members from both parties.

The winner of a majority of the votes cast gets the gavel. That means the candidate of the party with the most House seats wins, as long as party members stick together.

The current House speaker is Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who is retiring from Congress.

Source: Reuters