WASHINGTON — In a fresh sign of turmoil among defeated Democrats, a growing number of the rank and file say they won't support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a politically symbolic roll call when the new Congress meets in January.
"The reality is that she is politically toxic," said Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, one of several Democrats who are trying to pressure Pelosi to step aside as her party's leader in the wake of historic election losses to Republicans last week.
Pelosi startled many Democrats with a quick postelection announcement that she would run for minority leader. She has yet to draw an opponent for the post. [See top winners and losers from the 2010 elections.]
Party elections are scheduled for next week, although a postponement is possible.
In the interim, Pelosi's critics have become more vocal in their efforts to retire her from the party leadership.
There's "starting to be a sense that this may not be as much of a done deal as people might have thought," Rep. Jason Altmire said of Pelosi's quest to remain the top Democrat.
"If enough people come out and voice a little discomfort with the idea of her continuing on, maybe she would reconsider," said the Pennsylvanian, one of a handful of Democrats who said he won't cast a ceremonial vote for her.
The election of a party leader occurs behind closed doors. A separate election for speaker to be held on Jan. 5, a few hours after the House convenes for the first time, is a very visible one. One member of each party is typically nominated, and each lawmaker is then called by name to stand and declare a choice. The event is customarily televised live.
Defections from party discipline are rare in such circumstances, but several Democrats said they would not support Pelosi. They did not specify how they would vote instead.
Despite the criticism, one prominent ally, Rep. George Miller of California, said Wednesday night that Pelosi enjoys the support of the "overwhelming number of members of the caucus" for a new term as party leader.
"There has always been in the caucus and there always will be in the caucus people who want to distance themselves from the leadership. That's not new. I think that's a very small percentage," Miller said.
Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, added that the speaker has strong support throughout the caucus and "is grateful for the confidence that her colleagues have placed in her to become House Democratic leader."
Most of the Democrats who say they would not support Pelosi are moderates from conservative districts who have toiled to distinguish themselves from their liberal leader, and who watched dozens of like-minded Democrats go down in defeat after Republicans savaged them in TV advertisements as lapdogs of the San Francisco congresswoman.
Quigley stopped short of saying he would oppose Pelosi on a public vote, but others did not.
"You would find an unusual number of people not voting for the nominee of their party" if Pelosi were the choice, said Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah.
"There's a growing number of people in the caucus saying, 'Why's she running for minority leader in the first place?' We just got thumped in this election in a major way, and to act like we can just go back and do the same thing over again. It just seems like a very obvious situation when change is called for," Matheson said.
Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., another conservative, said through a spokesman that he, too, plans to vote against Pelosi in public and private.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., strongly suggested as much in a statement in which he said he wouldn't back Pelosi "for House Democratic leader or any other leadership position in the Congress."
Democrats lost at least 60 seats in last week's elections, with a handful of races yet to be settled. Many of the defeats came in conservative or swing districts, and many of her critics are lawmakers who survived narrowly.
Altmire won re-election by little more than 2 percentage points, but Quigley ran up more than 70 percent of the vote in his Chicago-area district. Pelosi has "probably been made the scapegoat in all this," he said in an interview, but he added that keeping her as the top Democrat "would make recruitment very difficult and winning back the House in two years nearly impossible."