Sixteen Democrats pledged Monday to oppose Nancy Pelosi as the next House speaker, escalating the stakes in the longtime Democratic leader's push to head her party during its first majority in eight years.
In a letter to fellow Democrats, 16 current, future or potential House members called to replace Pelosi when the party takes control of the chamber in January. They commended Pelosi as a "historic figure" who led Democrats to some of their most important achievements, but argued that their majority "came on the backs of candidates who said they would support new leadership."
"Therefore, we are committed to voting for new leadership in both our Caucus meeting [on Nov. 28] and on the House Floor [on Jan. 3]," the 16 Democrats wrote. If Democrats end up with 233 House seats, as expected, Pelosi can only afford to lose 15 votes from the caucus and become speaker.
But opponents of her leadership are not guaranteed to muster 16 votes in opposition. One of the Democrats who signed the letter — Ben McAdams — may lose his still undecided House race in Utah.
Multiple other Democratic skeptics, such as potential Pelosi challenger Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, did not sign the letter. Still, Pelosi could persuade others who are not currently supporting her to back her bid for the speaker's gavel.
The fight over Pelosi's future leadership has made the Democratic caucus's path murky as it gets set to take over the House and pursue changes meant to bring down health-care costs, curb corruption in government and shield young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. If Pelosi leads the House it will be during an era of divided government, as Republicans will still hold the Senate and White House in January.
The California Democrat, 78, has served as the top House Democrat for 16 years. In 2007, she was the first woman to become House speaker. Some Democratic members appear to want assurances that Pelosi would only hold the speaker's gavel for two more years in order to support her.
Pelosi has welcomed the challenge to her leadership, as opponents lack a clear alternative.
"I'll say it to everybody: 'Come on in, the water's warm,'" she said at a news conference Thursday.
A senior Democratic aide close to Pelosi said Monday that "if your strategy relies upon Nancy Pelosi giving up, you will lose every single time." Ninety-four percent of the Democratic caucus did not sign the letter, the aide noted.
Numerous Democratic House candidates across the country refused to back Pelosi as they tried to win Republican-held districts in the midterm elections earlier this month. After winning their elections, some of those incoming lawmakers softened their stances and indicated they could back Pelosi.
Some who did not sign the letter — including Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey's 11th District and Jason Crow in Colorado's 6th District — have reiterated their calls to replace Pelosi since they were elected.
The political implications of candidates potentially reneging on their pledges are unclear. Republicans have tied Democratic candidates to Pelosi in campaign ads for years.
However, it is unclear whether the strategy works or if anti-Pelosi sentiment actually drives votes.
— CNBC's Brian Schwartz contributed to this report.