WASHINGTON — A group of House Democrats — dismayed by partisan gridlock — is trying to force changes to the way the House works by leaning into a potential leadership fight, threatening to withhold support for Representative Nancy Pelosi to be speaker unless she backs an overhaul of the chamber’s rules.
The nine Democratic members of a bipartisan coalition calling itself the Problem Solvers Caucus are now insisting that Ms. Pelosi embrace their proposals or risk losing power when Democrats take control of the chamber in January. The group was formed several years ago by the centrist organization No Labels, in part to blunt the power of ultraconservative Republicans who have had an outsized influence on their leaders during their years in the majority.
But under Republican control, the Problem Solvers and No Labels have been ineffectual, proposing only modest bipartisan pieces of legislation and failing to mount significant challenges to the Republican leadership.
Their demands now are the latest wrinkle in Ms. Pelosi’s effort to win the speakership, a painstaking campaign she has undertaken in the wake of Democrats’ midterm election victories that has involved trying to put down a mini-rebellion among her longtime foes and newcomers demanding change. She faces a test on Wednesday, when Democrats meet behind closed doors to cast secret ballots for their leaders.
“For us, our rules proposal isn’t about changing leadership; it’s about changing a system that stymies the will of the common-sense majority,” the group said in a statement on Monday. “We are asking Leader Pelosi to publicly support three of the ‘Break the Gridlock’ rules changes that we first proposed in June to help spur immediate action on health care, immigration, and infrastructure.”
The group is essentially asking Ms. Pelosi and the incoming Democratic leadership to fundamentally alter the procedures of the House, where the majority rules absolutely and its leaders have ultimate say on what legislative proposals are considered. They instead support allowing bipartisan measures to have a chance of being debated and voted upon.
Among their proposals is one that would mandate that when a bill receives 290 co-sponsors, or three-fifths of the House, it would go to the House floor for debate and a timely vote. Another would guarantee that any amendment that has at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors would get a debate and a vote. The third request, aimed at empowering rank-and-file lawmakers, is that each member be allowed to introduce one bill, co-sponsored by a member of the other party, to be debated and considered on a committee on which he or she serves.
“The bottom line is this,” the group wrote. “We need real rules reform to get bipartisan legislation heard — not just more committees to study the problem. Bipartisan legislation with broad support deserves honest debate and a simple up-or-down vote.”
The effort has infuriated newly empowered liberals, who have accused the Problem Solvers Caucus of being “corporatist” Democrats beholden to the same political donors that Republicans rely on. They question why Democrats are always the ones to cede power when they achieve it.
The nine are in addition to 15 Democrats who signed a letter last week publicly vowing not to support Ms. Pelosi (a 16th, Representative Brian Higgins of New York, reversed himself days later and now says he will support her). There are also at least four newly elected Democrats who did not sign the letter, but campaigned promising not to back Ms. Pelosi and have said they will keep that pledge.
While she needs only a simple majority to be nominated for speaker this week by the Democratic Caucus, Ms. Pelosi must win a majority to be formally elected on the House floor on Jan. 3, meaning she could afford to lose only 15 Democrats if all lawmakers were present and voting and no Republicans supported her.
The Problem Solvers Caucus is making its request after weeks of quiet negotiations with Ms. Pelosi failed to produce a breakthrough. On Friday, they warned that they had reached a “stalemate” with Ms. Pelosi and would not be able to support her for speaker.
An aide to Ms. Pelosi said at the time that discussions were continuing. She is scheduled to meet with the group on Tuesday. That meeting will be the latest in a series of private sessions she has held in recent days, in person and over the phone, to wear down her critics and win support from her detractors. Last week alone, Ms. Pelosi cut deals with two lawmakers who had previously vowed to oppose her for speaker, winning support from Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Mr. Higgins.
The internal debate has already exposed deep fissures within Democratic ranks, placing Ms. Pelosi in the center of a political dilemma. On Friday, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacked the Problem Solvers on Twitter, saying they were nine people “choosing to hold the entire 220+ caucus hostage if we don’t accept their GOP-friendly rules that will hamstring healthcare efforts from the get-go.”
“People sent us here to get things done,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote “not ‘negotiate’ with an admin that jails children and guts people’s healthcare.”