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House Democrats Briefly Consider Upping Speakership Vote Threshold, Drop Proposal for Now

Idea expected to be raised again in the caucus after Nov. 6

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., faces potential backlash from her caucus should her party win back the House in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., faces potential backlash from her caucus should her party win back the House in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats on Wednesday briefly discussed a proposal to require their candidate for speaker — in case they win the chamber in November — to secure 218 votes in the caucus vote instead of a simple majority. The proposal was dropped, for now.

A shift from a simple majority to a 218-vote threshold would align the caucus rules with House rules that require a speaker to be elected by a majority of the full House.

Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter presented the proposed amendment to Democratic Caucus rules, and the caucus briefly debated it before he ultimately withdrew the amendment. 

Most members in the room suggested the proposal would best be discussed after the Nov. 6 midterm elections — with incoming freshmen included.

Supporters vowed to bring the amendment back up if Democrats retake the House. They can do that the same way they got the proposal on Wednesday’s caucus meeting agenda, with a small number of members providing notice they have a rule change they’d like to debate.  

“It’s definitely going to come back up after the election,” said New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, one of the members who proposed the amendment.

Supporters argue that the change is needed because of a current caucus rule that technically binds Democrats to vote for the caucus-nominated speaker on the floor. That rule has not been enforced, as there are typically a few members who vote for someone other than Nancy Pelosi, the longtime House Democratic leader.

Pelosi has said she wants to run for speaker again if Democrats win the majority, but it’s an open question as to whether the California Democrat can secure 218 votes from the whole House. 

With Republicans attacking Democratic candidates by trying to tie them to Pelosi, many prospective members have had to answer questions on the campaign trail about whether they would support her for speaker.

A few dozen candidates have either said they would not support Pelosi or more generally that they’d like to see a change in leadership. 

Changing this caucus rule would allow the party to avoid a messy floor fight in which the nominee would have to get to that same threshold, supporters argue. 

Opponents say that in a contested caucus race it would likely be impossible for any candidate to reach 218. The caucus nominee wouldn’t face any direct competition on the floor, so that number is easier to reach in that setting. 

No Democrat has announced plans to challenge Pelosi this fall but Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged her for minority leader in 2016, has said he’d consider it if no one else steps up. 

Pelosi beat Ryan 134 to 63 in that caucus vote. Some members said that Ryan earning nearly a third of caucus support was a sign of growing unrest among rank-and-file Democrats.

House Democrats have yet to set a specific date for their leadership elections, but they voted Wednesday to make it no sooner than Nov. 28, overriding a previous vote to make it no later than Dec. 5. 

The change would allow the leadership elections to occur the week after Thanksgiving while incoming freshmen are in town for orientation. The freshmen are not scheduled to be in Washington the week of Dec. 5.

‘A blackballing thing’

The amendment to change the speaker vote threshold was the last item discussed during Wednesday’s caucus meeting. By the time it came up just before 10 a.m., when the hourlong meeting was technically scheduled to end, many members had left for committee hearings or other meetings.

Some members who left before the discussion said they had questions about the proposal and weren’t prepared to register an opinion. But some who remained in the room offered passionate arguments — for and against the proposal.

One opponent, Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, said the change would enable a small group of members to create chaos and that Democrats should avoid that dynamic because they do not want to become like Republicans, according to a source in the room. 

Pelosi agreed with Frankel. 

“It’s also a blackballing thing.  Any one person can hold this up,” she said, according to the source who was present.

While Pelosi said she “can live with any scenario,” she did made it known that she felt the proposal was meant to attack her.

“I know where this is directed,” she said.

In response to members who brought up her unpopularity on the campaign trail, Pelosi held up a copy of Wednesday’s print edition of Roll Call, and read a passage from a story about a spate of polls showing she’s not much of a drag on candidates

Rice said the debate was fairly evenly balanced between supporters and opponents, but she left frustrated with the tone taken by some of those opposing the change.

“This is the problem with the Democratic Caucus in the House: We kill each other if you have an opinion that differs from leadership,” she said. “And that is why we keep losing. And that is why the American people are sick and tired of our messaging that does not reflect what’s going in the country.”

The proposal was not a personal attack on Pelosi, Rice added. 

“If we are going to get in the majority and stay in the majority we have to protect the new members who are, by definition, coming into this House incredibly vulnerable and not likely to get re-elected if we force them to take difficult votes right from the outset,” she said.

Fate uncertain

Members walked away from the discussion with different conclusions about the proposal’s future. 

“I think we probably have a majority of the caucus, not an overwhelming number, but a majority” supporting the change, said Rep. Kurt Schrader, one of the proponents. The Oregon Democrat said he was surprised by the number and diversity of members who are backing it.

One of the opponents, California Rep. Mike Thompson, said the discussion provided several members to point out the flaws of the proposal. He wasn’t sure if the caucus would want to bring it back up or not.

“I think that would really hamstring us to put this time of barrier on [the speaker vote],” Thompson said. “There are a whole bunch of people in our caucus who couldn’t get 218 votes. … With that kind of threshold, we could be arguing throughout the year.”

Rep. Dan Kildee said most members of the caucus don’t want to see a fractured floor vote for speaker and suggested the caucus could come up with some sort of compromise threshold. 

“We ought to be open to a leadership battle, but when that battle is over, I think the solution is we all have to stand together — and whoever wins should receive the vote of all members on the House floor,” the Michigan Democrat said.

“The issue I think is what do we think that threshold looks like,” he added. “Is it a just simple majority on one exchange? Is it 218? Or is something that is a higher threshold? I think that might be a better solution … to make it clear that we don’t have our nominee going to the floor with a small marginal victory, but with something more substantial.”

Modifications would be in order if there is going to be any rule change, Virginia Rep. Gerry E. Connolly said.

“I think there’s sufficient feedback today to impress on the authors of the [amendment] that it faces certain death in the caucus,” he said. “So if you want the caucus to look at modifying existing rules and numbers required, you’re going to have to come up with something that sounds and looks more reasonable and is more workable.”

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