Does anyone really believe Nancy Pelosi would term-limit herself? Multiple news outlets reported overnight that the once-and-future-Speaker had reached an agreement in principle with dissenters in the House Democratic caucus to trade term limits for full-throated support for her return as House Speaker. As Bloomberg and others explained it, those limits would apply to Pelosi — and retroactively:

California Democrat Nancy Pelosi is nearing a deal to clinch the votes she needs to become House speaker by promising her staunchest opponents that she’ll set an expiration date on her leadership, according to three people involved in the negotiations.

Five Democrats who signed a letter demanding new leadership are signaling that they’ll support Pelosi for speaker in exchange for term limits on Democratic leaders.

The proposal to limit top party leaders while in the House majority to three two-year terms in those posts would be retroactive, meaning that Pelosi would only have two years left to be speaker following the four years she led the chamber from 2007-2010, said the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss the matter. Leaders could also seek an additional two-year term under modified rules.

This deal all but secures the speaker’s gavel for Pelosi — but at the cost of defining how long she’ll stay, something she previously resisted doing because she said it would compromise her leverage in negotiations with Republicans.

CBS reported a deal on similar terms but without the retroactive application, which would allow Pelosi to serve four years as Speaker — assuming, of course, Democrats hold the House in 2020. Politico followed up by calling the deal all but done with retroactive application, but with a safety valve that could be used if two-thirds of the caucus votes to waive the term limits for a single term only. Since Pelosi won by far more than two-thirds in last month’s caucus vote, presumably she’d sail easily to the speakership in 2021, again assuming Democrats hold the majority.

But wait! Roll Call reports this morning that Pelosi only agreed to hold a vote on term limits. And the timing of the agreement might make it nothing more than an advisory policy:

The latest iteration of the debate, although far from over, seems much like the previous ones and has some members predicting it won’t result in any changes, even if it might give Democrats who oppose the speakership of their current leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, a compromise reason to allow her to reclaim the gavel. …

The negotiations faced a setback when the Democratic Caucus decided Tuesday after a brief discussion to hold off on a larger term-limit debate until next year when the freshmen will be present in Washington to participate. There was agreement that the Democrats’ House rules package will not include any mention of term limits and that any changes would be debated in the context of caucus rules.

Exactly when, or even if, another term-limit discussion will take place remains unclear. While the caucus could technically convene a meeting on Jan. 2, it is uncertain if a resolution would be reached before the speaker election and House rules vote the following day, when the 116th Congress convenes.

The timing would appear to limit the strength of any agreement [Rep. Ed] Perlmutter might be able to reach with Pelosi on term limits, since the caucus cannot be bound to make a change to its rules just because Pelosi supports it, although she would have strong influence.

If true, this is a total inside-the-Beltway boss move worthy of Pelosi. It’s a clever exploitation of House rules that essentially negates any deal she might have to sign in order to get what she wants. Perlmutter has to know this, too, which makes this nothing more than a symbolic move that will mean nothing once Pelosi has her hands on the gavel. It’s even more cynical than the suggestion that dissenters could satisfy their campaign pledges to oppose Pelosi by voting “present” on the Speaker election — lowering the number needed for a majority win.

Steny Hoyer tells Roll Call that he doesn’t think a vote on term limits would pass anyway. Others in the dissenter camp said they’re not even interested in term limits; all they wanted was a change of leadership now. What are they going to tell the constituents that they promised would get an anti-Pelosi Democrat to represent them — wait until 2021? Yeah, riiiiiight. Republicans had held those districts for a few elections, and they’ll be salivating over the potential attack ads they can run in a presidential election cycle.

For the record, though, Hoyer’s right. Term limits help in keeping chairs from creating decades-long fiefdoms, but otherwise don’t do much to get new blood into leadership. It just prompts a game of musical chairs among those with the most seniority, which leaves all the fresh blood on the sidelines anyway. Plus, as Republicans found out the hard way this year, it disincentivizes term-limited chairs from seeking re-election at all, leaving the majority party vulnerable to challengers in once-safe districts.

The best term limit is that imposed by voters … especially when the “limits” in this case are nothing more than a dodge to allow a mildly honorable retreat in a caucus fight.