By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi vowed on Thursday to retake the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives even as a string of critics within her party have said they would oppose her bid.
“I intend to win the speakership with Democratic votes … I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be speaker of the House,” Pelosi, a liberal from San Francisco, said at a news conference. “I happen to think that at this point, I’m the best person for that.”
Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in midterm congressional elections on Nov. 6, while Republicans held their majority in the Senate.
Pelosi, who has led Democrats in the House for 16 years, wants to reclaim the top job of speaker she held from 2007 to 2011. The House speaker is next in the line of presidential succession after the vice president.
A small but vocal group of Democrats has argued that the 78-year-old Pelosi should step aside and allow change, saying she has not encouraged a younger generation of Democrats to move into leadership positions.
Pelosi is unpopular with many voters and has become a punching bag for Republicans. Some Democratic candidates who won swing districts this month made campaign pledges to oppose Pelosi as speaker; Pelosi’s critics say such pledges opened the door to victory.
Pelosi’s backers say the former speaker has the experience needed to challenge President Donald Trump, and has offered a legislative agenda that includes key Democratic goals such as raising the federal minimum wage and investing in climate-friendly infrastructure.
She is also a prodigious fundraiser, a tireless campaigner and has an impressive record, including passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, when she was last speaker. Protecting that law from repeated attacks by Republicans was a top issue for Democrats in their successful campaign for the House.
Pelosi is expected to win an internal party vote that should take place in two weeks. It was unclear whether she has sufficient support for a House floor vote for speaker in January, when both parties will vote.
Seventeen Democrats have signed a letter pledging not to back Pelosi during the House floor vote, Democratic aides said. Asked about the letter, Pelosi told reporters they should ask the signatories, 14 of whom she said were men, what their motivations were.
No challenger has emerged to Pelosi, although Representative Marcia Fudge, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, has told some media outlets she is considering a bid. She told the Huffington Post on Thursday that some people oppose Pelosi because “they see her as an elitist.”
“And I think to some degree she is,” Fudge continued. “She’s a very wealthy person, she raises a lot of money from a lot of other wealthy people.”
Fudge, 66, a liberal who represents a district in northeastern Ohio, supported Representative Tim Ryan’s failed bid in 2016 to unseat Pelosi as Democratic leader.
Some Democrats attending a caucus on Thursday said they did not know whether Fudge was seriously considering a bid.
Representative Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he had just been on the phone with Fudge and she did not mention running for speaker.
Ryan has said he has no interest in running against Pelosi again. But he warned on Wednesday that some Democratic freshmen who won last week could lose next time if they renege on campaign promises to oppose Pelosi.
“When you win, saying one thing, you can’t come down here and have the leadership ask you on your first vote to go back on your word,” Ryan said.
Representative Seth Moulton, another Pelosi opponent, believed the former speaker’s critics have the momentum. “The majority of the American people want new leadership in the U.S. Congress and we have to answer their call,” he said in a Capitol hallway.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who launched a “Fire Pelosi” campaign in 2010 when he was with the Republican National Committee, said pent-up frustration among Democratic members for a path to party leadership is legitimate – but that it would be “foolish” for them to oust Pelosi in the speaker’s race.
“When I was at the RNC we didn’t launch a “Fire Pelosi” campaign because she was ineffective. It was because she was effective,” Heye said in an interview.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Ginger Gibson, Amanda Becker and David Morgan; Editing by Kieran Murray, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)