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Pelosi and Her Opponents Downplay Importance of Caucus Vote in Speaker Battle

Secret ballot may not provide a clear picture on how much support Pelosi will have on the floor

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is confident the closed-door Democratic Caucus leadership elections Wednesday will prove she has strong support for her speaker bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is confident the closed-door Democratic Caucus leadership elections Wednesday will prove she has strong support for her speaker bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the small contingent of members who oppose her are both heading into Wednesday’s leadership elections knowing she’ll emerge as the caucus’s nominee for speaker.

But the two sides still have different expectations for what will happen in a Jan. 3 floor vote five weeks from now, as Pelosi remains confident she’ll have the support of the majority of the House to secure the gavel and her opponents are still predicting she won’t.

The California Democrat is running unopposed for speaker, the top leadership post in the House. Traditionally the caucus would take a unanimous consent vote for an uncontested leadership race, but Pelosi’s opponents are expected to object and ask for a ballot.

The ballot is conducted in secret. Members who oppose Pelosi have the option of writing in someone else’s name or leaving their ballot blank as a means of voting against Pelosi, but those votes only count for the purposes of a quorum.

Both sides know Pelosi will easily meet the simple majority threshold needed to secure the caucus’s nomination for speaker. It’s next year on the floor where she’ll need a majority of the full House, which is 218 votes if all members are present and voting. That threshold can be lowered if members vote “present” or don’t vote at all.

Pelosi allies are fine with a secret ballot because it allows members who said they wouldn’t vote for her an opportunity to do so — as a way of showing their objection. That could then potentially open them up to voting for her on the floor where she’ll be the caucus’s nominee.

Because of that, Pelosi supporters expect the number of votes she receives in caucus will be lower than what she can get on the floor and are simply looking for a stronger showing than she had in her 2016 race against Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, which she won on a 134-63 vote.

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Beyond the vote

Opponents of Pelosi don’t seem to have an organized strategy for the caucus vote.

“Not sure,” Ryan, one of the opposition group’s leaders, said when asked about their plan.

Another one of the group’s leaders, New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, said they would object to a unanimous consent vote and ask for a secret ballot

But the group does not appear to have a plan for how members will register their opposition beyond that. Their options are to not vote, submit a blank ballot or write someone else’s name.

“We’re letting members do what they want to do,” said Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, another anti-Pelosi leader. “At this point, she’ll get the votes she’ll get. We’ll go from there and see what happens on Jan. 3.”

Both Rice and Schrader dismissed the importance of the caucus vote, expressing confidence the opposition is still more than enough to prevent Pelosi from winning a floor vote.

“We’re not going to make a big plan for tomorrow. It will be very low-key,” Schrader said, noting that the real vote that matters is the floor vote Jan. 3. “And we have the votes,” he said, referring to the opposition needed to prevent Pelosi from being elected speaker. 

There are 16 Democrats, including the aforementioned three leaders, seven other members and six incoming freshmen, who’ve signed a letter saying they will oppose Pelosi in the caucus vote and on the floor. Four other Democrats have publicly said the same but did not sign the letter. 

More problems

Nine Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus, including one of the letter signatories, Schrader, have also said they’re not ready to back Pelosi. They want her to support a package of House rule changes they proposed in July, called Break the Gridlock.

While some of their proposals were included in draft House rule proposals that incoming Rules Chairman Jim McGovern shared with the caucus before Thanksgiving, some of the bigger ideas the Problem Solvers proposed have yet to be included. 

In a Monday statement, the nine Democratic Problem Solvers outlined three proposals they wanted Pelosi to back: timely floor consideration of bills with at least 290 co-sponsors, which is two-thirds of the House; guaranteed floor votes on amendments that have at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors; and allowing all members at least one committee vote on a bill they introduce under jurisdiction of a panel they serve on that has at least one co-sponsor from the opposite party.

Pelosi and McGovern had already agreed to the first change before the statement went out, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The nine Problem Solvers involved in leveraging their speaker votes for rule changes are Schrader, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, the group’s co-chairman, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Jim Costa of California, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Tom Suozzi of New York and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas.

Several members of that group met Tuesday evening with McGovern. They had planned to meet with Pelosi, but she couldn’t join because of scheduling conflicts. She offered alternative times to meet, but none were agreeable to the group.

Gottheimer provided a statement to Roll Call after the meeting with McGovern, which he called “encouraging and productive.”

“We will continue to work with Leader Pelosi and Ranking Member McGovern on specific rules changes to help promote action on health care, immigration, and infrastructure,” the New Jersey Democrat said. 

Lipinski, who was also present for the meeting, declined to provide details on what was discussed but said they hadn’t yet reached agreement on enough proposals to make the group comfortable voting for Pelosi.

Schrader, being one of the anti-Pelosi leaders, has a different standard than the other Problem Solvers on what he would need to support her — inclusion of all of the Break the Gridlock proposals in the House rules package.

“She’s already turned down a number of them,” he said, citing as an example a proposal to require a speaker to be elected by an absolute majority of the House (218 votes) regardless of whether members are present. Pelosi “unilaterally” rejected that idea, he said.

Schrader said he’s not participated in the Problem Solvers’s negotiations with Pelosi, noting it would be “disingenuous.”

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