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Pelosi challenges unhappy Dems to block her bid for speaker

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks in during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Pelosi says she's confident she will win enough support to be elected speaker of the House next year and that she is the best person for the job. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A defiant Rep. Nancy Pelosi challenged maverick Democrats on Wednesday to produce a rival who could win enough votes to prevent her from becoming the House's new speaker.

"Come on in, the water's warm," Pelosi, D-Calif., told a reporter about her message to rebellious colleagues.

A handful of Democrats, arguing it's time for a fresh leadership team, say unhappy lawmakers are signing a letter pledging to vote against Pelosi when the full chamber elects the next speaker on Jan. 3. Some said they already have sufficient support to block her.

"We've got enough to ensure that she cannot become speaker," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

But Pelosi is one of her party's most productive fundraisers, energetic campaigners and respected legislative tacticians, giving her wide support that will make her difficult to topple.

"I will be speaker," she said Wednesday.

The Democratic majority will be narrow enough that fewer than 20 Democrats voting for a different candidate would be able to block her, assuming all Republicans oppose her as expected.

No challenger to Pelosi has emerged, but disgruntled Democrats say there would be plenty of candidates should her bid be derailed. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a leading Pelosi opponent, suggested two possibilities: Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Karen Bass of California, both members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Fudge told reporters she has signed the rebels' letter and said colleagues have urged her to run for speaker.

"We're not going to allow the Republicans to have a speaker, so certainly there will be someone that will step up" if Pelosi steps aside, Fudge said. "And those discussions are going on now."

Even so, some divisions were emerging among the Pelosi opponents.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., a leader of the group, told reporters that keeping Pelosi as speaker but making other changes in the party's leadership was "a possibility." No. 2 Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and No. 3 leader Jim Clyburn, D-Md., have served under Pelosi for years.

"It's about change," Perlmutter said. "She's not the goal. Maybe for some."

Democrats seeking to block Pelosi argue it's time to give younger Democrats a chance to rise to high-level posts. They also argue that Republicans have demonized her in campaign ads that have made it hard for Democrats to be elected in closely contested, moderate districts. A core group of incumbent Democrats opposes Pelosi, and some newly elected lawmakers pledged during their campaigns to do the same.

"When we finally get into the majority, we have to do everything we can to keep these new members here, to support them and whatever campaign promises they made," said Rep. Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat who opposes Pelosi.

It remains to be seen how many freshmen will join the effort to stop Pelosi's rise.

Katie Hill, a newly elected Democrat from California, stood up during the afternoon caucus meeting and said that the freshman class wants to "move on" from the leadership debate. She said after the meeting that she expects to vote for Pelosi and said she didn't oppose Pelosi during her campaign.

"The more anyone focuses on internal party dynamics, the less productive it is," Hill said. "As far as I'm concerned, they've tried to run these campaigns against every single one of us, as far as comparing us to Nancy Pelosi, and it didn't work."

Still, some of the freshmen have indicated that they will not vote for Pelosi under any circumstances.

Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin of Michigan promised to oppose Pelosi during her campaign and said she is sticking to that pledge.

"I never want to be disrespectful to anyone who has served, especially a woman who has broken glass ceilings. And everyone needs to do what's right for their district. For me, I need to hear what people are saying, and they want a new generation of leadership on both sides of the aisle."

Other incoming members said they were undecided about their vote.

"I haven't made up my mind. I have nothing more to say about it," said Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood of Illinois.

Josh Harder, an incoming Democrat from California who defeated Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, said he's "keeping an open mind and trying to listen to everybody."

"We're looking to actually accomplish things so we can go back and win re-elections in these tough seats," Harder said. "And the way we do that is by helping people, and I think we're looking for a Democratic leadership that's actually going to do something."

Pelosi has been Democratic leader since 2003 and was speaker — the first woman to hold the job — when Democrats had the House majority from 2007 through 2010. Hoyer has been No. 2 House Democrat since 2003, while Clyburn has been No. 3 since 2007. All are in their late 70s.

Pelosi is lobbying hard, meeting with individuals and groups of Democrats and getting boosts from outside allies. On Wednesday morning alone, her office released letters of support from the Communications Workers of America and United Steelworkers, two labor groups, and another from Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., a black caucus member.

There is little doubt Pelosi will win a majority of votes when Democrats meet privately after Thanksgiving to select their nominee for speaker. She will then have until Jan. 3 to round up enough support to prevail.

"The bishop of the church will call, the top fundraiser will call, President Obama will call," Schrader said of the tools Pelosi could use to win over Democrats. "I would never underestimate Nancy Pelosi."

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