House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is trying to secure the final votes she needs to become speaker again ahead of a preliminary vote this morning that will serve as a test of her standing among fellow Democrats.
House Democrats will hold a secret ballot vote to determine who they want to put forward as their speaker candidate when the new Congress meets in January. The San Francisco Democrat is expected to handily win a majority of her caucus, but the vote will display the strength of the opposition she faces from rebellious Democrats who say she should clear the way for new leadership.
Winning today is just the first step. Pelosi will need to get about 218 votes on the House floor in January. Since Republicans are expected to vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), Pelosi will need the vast majority of the approximately 233 Democrats — depending on a few uncalled races — to support her. That gives her a margin of about 15 Democrats who could vote against her.
Pelosi has been aggressively courting her opposition, which is made up of a disorganized group of veteran lawmakers such as Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and newly elected members, such as Rep.-elect Gil Cisneros of Fullerton. One of her allies, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), met late Tuesday with the Democrats on the bipartisan “Problem Solvers” caucus, nine of whom are withholding their support until she agrees to change House rules, such as allowing bills to come to the floor if they get the support of three-fifths of members.
Pelosi held one-on-one meetings with members and met with a group of incoming lawmakers at an orientation meeting, where she pitched party unity.
“We want to remove all doubt to how we go forward in a way that puts our best foot forward on Day 1, in order to show that we can govern,” she told the freshmen, according to an attendee. “That we can govern in a way that is transparent and hopeful and fair. In a way that is bipartisan, frankly.”
The argument against Pelosi is that the midterm election was a call to change not just the party that controls the House but also the people who lead it. But Pelosi’s opponents have not put forward an alternative candidate, leading some Pelosi supporters to accuse the group of supporting change just for the sake of change. Her backers argue that House Democrats will need an experienced leader to go up against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump.
Sixteen members of the rebel coalition signed a letter this month promising to vote against Pelosi. But she has slowly picked off skeptics. She offered a subcommittee chairmanship to a prominent critic, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who publicly floated the idea of challenging her. She won over Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) — who signed the letter — by promising to make infrastructure and healthcare key priorities in the new Congress, even though Democrats have already said they would do so. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who also signed the letter, told a local radio station that he would “obviously” support Pelosi over a Republican if no other Democratic opponent emerges.
Pelosi has faced several challenges to her leadership of the House Democratic caucus, a position she has held since 2002. While she has beat all of them back, this year’s opposition poses the most serious threat, even though she helped deliver control of the House in the biggest Democratic wave since Watergate.
Pelosi’s camp has rallied aggressively to ensure she regains the speaker's gavel. She would be the first person since Sam Rayburn in the 1950s to become speaker after previously losing the post when their party lost the majority. She has garnered the endorsements of liberal activist groups and a wide swath of Democratic lawmakers.
“She’ll have a winning majority of the caucus,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin). “And I hope that builds momentum so that on the floor on Jan. 3, that we elect a speaker, unify and do the work we were sent to do.”
Several Democratic candidates promised on the campaign trail to oppose Pelosi as speaker. The caucus vote today is viewed by some Democratic rebels as a way to live up to that pledge, even if they end up voting for her on the House floor in January, when the only other option may be a Republican. That means even if dozens of Democrats vote against her today, many could still vote for Pelosi in January when their support is more crucial.
Two years ago, Pelosi lost 63 votes in the secret ballot to serve as House minority leader. But on the floor, she lost only four votes.
Democrats are concerned that a messy speaker fight could undermine what they want to accomplish in the next two years.
“We don’t want the first impression to be that we can’t get ourselves together,” said California Rep.-elect Katie Hill, who wrote a letter to fellow freshmen urging support for Pelosi. Hill said Pelosi has been listening to the concerns of the large class of new members — who will make up one quarter of Democratic members — and made clear that their issues will be a priority.
Pelosi, who was the first woman to be elected speaker and served from 2007 to 2011, has tried to tamp down the calls for new leadership by promising to serve as a “bridge” or “transitional” leader. She hasn’t specified when she would step down because doing so would immediately make her a lame duck, according to her supporters.
The idea that Pelosi will step down in the future has added an additional layer of intrigue to the other leadership positions Democrats will vote for today. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has long been Pelosi’s top deputy, is running unopposed for majority leader. Other lower-level jobs, such as the leader of the House Democratic campaign arm, are perches from which Democrats can rise in the ranks. When Pelosi steps down, the Democrats holding these jobs could be front-runners to replace her.
“There is a huge desire, that is quite understandable, for change,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who supports Pelosi. “Sooner or later, we have to rebuild the bench.”