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What Democrats think of Pelosi's 'transitional' pitch

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is billing herself as a "transitional" speaker who would bridge the current generation to the next, hoping to alleviate lingering concerns among some Democrats uncertain about electing her to the powerful position.

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Ashley Killough
Manu Raju, CNN
(CNN) — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is billing herself as a "transitional" speaker who would bridge the current generation to the next, hoping to alleviate lingering concerns among some Democrats uncertain about electing her to the powerful position.

But Pelosi hasn't fully detailed how that transition would work, and Democrats want some answers.

"I think the bigger question is who would be the successor," said Rep. Darren Soto of Florida, saying the caucus should soon come up with a plan.

In conversations with CNN over the past week, Democratic members and aides acknowledge that Pelosi's promise to be a transitional leader has helped allay concerns that she would be speaker indefinitely if Democrats retake the House next month. And without any clear challenger, she remains a heavy favorite to become speaker in a Democratic majority -- even though some members say voters in their districts are eager to see change at the top.

"I'm sure people will want to know what her plans are, but until another candidate emerges to really put the heat on, she has some breathing room," another Democratic member said.

Soto, who has long endorsed the idea of a transition plan and supports Pelosi, said it would be helpful to know early on who would be the heir apparent.

"I think a lot of that will be determined in the elections," he said, referring to the caucus elections next month that will determine not only the No. 1 spot in the caucus, but a spate of other leadership positions.

Math problems loom

Pelosi, the first woman to hold the speaker's gavel a decade ago, is confident she'll be speaker again but recently told the Los Angeles Times she's imagining a life beyond that, suggesting she's not planning to stay in the House forever. "I have things to do. Books to write; places to go; grandchildren, first and foremost, to love."

The math may be tricky. Of 26 Democrats in toss-up races, 11 have said they would oppose Pelosi as speaker, while an additional 19 Democrats who are in districts that lean Democratic or are solidly in their party's favor said they would oppose her, according to a CNN tally. Those numbers grow among Democrats in districts that lean Republican.

Pelosi can win the Democratic nomination to become speaker with only a simple majority in the caucus election. It gets more challenging in January, when the full House votes and she'll need 218 votes or whatever equates to a majority of the House at the time.

If Democrats have a sizable majority -- say 230 or 240 -- Pelosi could afford to lose some support among her caucus on the floor and still win the speakership. If the majority is slim -- say 220 -- her pathway is more difficult.

That's where the transition argument could help, some members say, especially with incoming freshmen who campaigned on voting against her.

"I think it might help some of those candidates who are getting blitzed with anti-Pelosi ads to be able to say she's not going to be there forever, and so it gives them a little bit of cover," said another Democratic member who generally doesn't talk about leadership elections and asked not to be named.

But there's another catch that could help Pelosi. House rules say a speaker is elected by a majority of members who cast votes for an individual on the floor. If members choose not to show up -- or vote "present" -- the threshold for becoming speaker is lowered. That happened in 2014, when then-Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, won 216 votes out of just 408 cast.

Pelosi running on her leadership

Pelosi allies say that if she's running, it's because she knows she has the votes. Moreover, she has the power of incumbency of sorts -- the ability to raise tens of millions for Democratic candidates as well as to dole out prized committee assignments critical for members to ascend the hierarchy in the caucus. She plans to call all her members to touch base before the midterm elections and immediately after.

"If Nancy Pelosi's running for speaker, it's because we've won the majority, and a lot of that will have been under her leadership in supporting our caucus and candidates across the country," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat. "And I think that will have taken away the argument that she's a drag on candidates."

Any vacancy at the top would trigger a dramatic contest for the speaker's job, with longtime leaders -- like House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina -- expected to run if Pelosi steps aside, as well as younger members who have their eyes on higher posts in the caucus. Hoyer and Clyburn have also made the "transition" argument in the past, but they are unlikely to take Pelosi on directly.

Pelosi allies told CNN she has no intention of ceding the speakership and allowing Hoyer or Clyburn to be a bridge to the next generation of leaders. In other words, if she steps aside, she expects Hoyer or Clyburn to leave with her, sources said, though that decision will ultimately be up to those two men.

By all accounts, however, Pelosi appears to be going nowhere.

"I fully expect that she'll be speaker," said Rep. Ro Khanna of California, noting that if Democrats win, Pelosi would be at the helm of a major victory that includes a large number of female candidates. "I can't imagine how we would not ... allow her to at least claim the gavel."

Supporters of the transition idea also say it's a logical step when the caucus could be going through a major transition itself -- from the minority to the majority for the first time in eight years.

"I do think you need an experienced person at the top to help get that together and get us organized and off to a good start," said Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois.

Facing incoming freshmen, opposition from Democrats

It's unclear, though, just how effective the pitch will be on incoming freshmen and on incumbent candidates who've already vowed to oppose Pelosi -- some of whom she may need to hold the gavel once again.

"I think it's time for somebody new," said Paul Davis, a Democratic House candidate in Kansas, when asked about the idea of a transition.

Some of Pelosi's critics think her latest pitch is nothing more than political maneuvering. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged Pelosi for minority leader in 2016 and lost, said in a recent radio interview with New Hampshire's WKXL that "it sounds like a strategy she has to keep people in her corner."

Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a vocal critic of Pelosi's, described her pitch as a "desperate" attempt to become speaker "at the expense of the Democratic Party."

Schrader told CNN that he and other incumbents who oppose Pelosi will provide a "safe place" for incoming freshmen this fall in Congress as they face pressure to go back on their campaign promise and support Pelosi on the floor.

"We respect the work she's done in the past, but there's always a time to move on," he said. "Unfortunately, she doesn't see that right now."

In her recent comments, Pelosi declined to lay down any sort of timeline for when she would hand off the baton, saying she's not going to make herself a "lame duck."

"There has to be a transition at some point in all of this," Pelosi told CNN's Dana Bash at a CNN event last week.

Her allies say she's unlikely to detail a timeline after the elections either, not wanting to follow the model of current Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who announced his retirement from Congress months before he gives up the gavel.

Still, as members digest the idea of a transitional leader, some want specifics. Another member who asked not to be named said the caucus would need "far greater clarity" on whether Pelosi would stay for "six months" or multiple years. "A transition could be a little more peaceful. The downside of that peace is the uncertainty."

While Pelosi has quietly and closely worked with some younger members to help them rise in the caucus, the minority leader told the LA Times that she would be hands off in the selection of the next generation of leaders.

"Whoever is next is not up to me," she said. "If I were saying, 'I want so-and-so to be my successor,' that's not right."

And whether the transition idea is enough to satisfy her caucus -- particularly new members who distanced themselves from her on the campaign trail -- remains to be seen.

"Her biggest challenge will be with new members who have pledged to publicly support someone else (plus, of course, the current members who don't want her)," said one Democratic member. "In the end, those things could be a real problem to reaching 218."

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