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House Democrats Settle on Top Leaders, but Fight Over Speakership Remains

Pelosi gets overwhelming numbers for speaker bid

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the CVC Auditorium during a break in the House Democrats’ organizational caucus meetings on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the CVC Auditorium during a break in the House Democrats’ organizational caucus meetings on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats decided on their top leaders Wednesday — all except the highest-ranking one. Nancy Pelosi overwhelmingly secured the caucus’s nomination for speaker, but a sizable group of opponents appears determined to keep the California Democrat from officially claiming the gavel on Jan. 3. 

Pelosi got 203 votes on the caucus ballot, but her allies believe that’s far lower than what she can earn on the floor. There were 32 “no” votes and three blanks. New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who is supporting Pelosi, was absent. 

Four Democratic delegates who participated in the caucus vote cannot vote on the floor.

What remains uncertain is whether Pelosi will be able to unify enough members of her caucus to win the Jan. 3 speaker election on the House floor. She needs a majority of the entire chamber — 218 votes if all members are present and voting — to secure the gavel, something she currently appears to lack.

The caucus temporarily changed its rules Wednesday to allow for a “no” option on the speaker ballot to help Democrats who promised during their campaigns to vote against Pelosi to fulfill that pledge. Typically the only option for voting against a candidate in an uncontested race would be to leave the ballot blank or write in someone else’s name.

The thinking among Pelosi allies is that voting “no” on the caucus ballot — which, while secret, members can take pictures of and share on social media if they wish — will be enough for most of her critics and they can then vote for her on the floor as the caucus’s nominee.

House Democrats are on track to have 235 members next year, meaning Pelosi could lose no more than 17 votes on the floor, unless some members vote “present” or do not vote.

There are at least 20 members and incoming freshmen who’ve said they will not vote for Pelosi on the floor.

That includes 16 Democrats who’ve signed a letter saying they “are committed to voting for new leadership,” and another four who didn’t sign the letter but have made similar pledges.

Watch: Pelosi Holds Victorious Briefing After Speakership Nod

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Huddle with the holdouts

Some of the Pelosi opposition leaders — New York’s Kathleen Rice, Massachusetts’ Seth Moulton and Ohio’s Tim Ryan — tried to negotiate with Pelosi just before the caucus vote on defining how long she plans to remain in leadership. But the longtime leader, who has said she will not make herself a lame duck, did not bite.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 28: Rep. Kathleen Rice, R-N.Y., talks with reporters outside the House Democrats' leadership elections in Longworth Building on November 28, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Kathleen Rice, R-N.Y., talks with reporters outside the House Democrats’ leadership elections in Longworth Building on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“We met with Leader Pelosi and tried to engage her in a reasonable conversation about leadership transition,” Rice said in a statement. “Unfortunately, our concerns were dismissed outright. We remain united behind our goal of new leadership and intend to vote against Leader Pelosi in caucus and on the floor of the House.”

Moulton said in a separate statement that he was disappointed no agreement was reached with Pelosi on “a meaningful plan for a leadership transition,” but said they’re hopeful she’ll invite them back to the negotiating table “to plan for the future success of the Democratic Party.”

Moulton and Rice both reaffirmed their claim that Pelosi does not have the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker.

Pelosi, speaking at a brief press conference after the caucus vote, said this of her support heading to the floor: “I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

She declined to respond to Rice’s assertion that she outright dismissed the opposition’s concerns about the lack of a succession plan.

“Let me tell you something,” Pelosi said. “I’m talking about scores of members of Congress who just gave me a vote — giving me a vote of confidence. That is where our focus is. Are there dissenters? Yes, but I expect to have a powerful vote as we go forward.”

Solving a problem

Pelosi was successful in brokering a deal Wednesday with at least eight Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus — announced right as her nominating process began — on House rules changes they wanted as a condition of their support.

“I’ve spent a lot of time listening to members,” Pelosi said at the press conference, noting her vote-counting effort this year isn’t different from previous leadership races.

The Democratic Caucus has a rule that requires its members to support the caucus nominee for speaker on the floor, but it’s never enforced. Nonetheless, Pelosi and her allies are hoping members will decide to do so in the spirit of unity.

“I thank so many of you for the strong support you have given me for speaker,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter Nov. 23. “Respectful of the views of all members, I request that we all support the nominee of our caucus for speaker on the floor of the House. Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power.”

During the intraparty leadership elections candidates are nominated by one of their supporters and a handful of other allies second the nominations, all of whom speak to the candidates’ qualifications.

Showing a geographic and demographic diversity of support, Pelosi was nominated by Reps. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, Kathy Castor of Florida, Eric Swalwell and Adam B. Schiff of California, Joyce Beatty of Ohio and John Lewis of Georgia. Reps.-elect Angie Craig of Minnesota, Veronica Escobar of Texas and Katie Hill of California seconded.

Other races

Pelosi’s longtime lieutenants, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, won the majority leader and majority whip positions, respectively, with both running unopposed. Outgoing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján was unopposed for the assistant Democratic leader spot, the No. 4 position in the ranks. 

House Democrats kicked off the day by selecting New York’s Hakeem Jeffries to be their caucus chairman so he could oversee the remainder of the leadership elections.

Jeffries, whom several Democratic colleagues view as a potential future speaker, narrowly defeated California Rep. Barbara Lee, 123-113.

Currently one of three co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus’s messaging arm, Jeffries now ascends to the No. 5 leadership slot.

With Jeffries joining Clyburn in the top ranks, the 116th Congress will mark the first time in history when two black lawmakers have served in the top tier of leadership at the same time.

Despite the history-making moment, Lee expressed some disappointment by the “institutional barriers” she faced in the race as a black woman. Had she won, she would have been the first African-American woman elected to leadership.

She said she felt ageism and sexism were factors in the race.

Late in the evening, Democrats selected Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark as the caucus vice chair, their No. 6 leadership position.

Clark, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, handily defeated California Rep. Pete Aguilar in a 144-90 vote and becomes the second-highest-ranking woman in party leadership after Pelosi.

House Democrats will wrap up their leadership elections Thursday, with votes for the positions of DCCC chair, DPCC chair and three co-chairs, caucus representative serving five terms or fewer, and freshman caucus representative.

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