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With Opponents Dug In, Pelosi Has Little Room to Negotiate on Speaker Votes

At least 15 Pelosi opponents say they remain firm and will not vote ‘present’

Reps.-elect Max Rose, D-N.Y., left, and Jason Crow, D-Colo., pictured fist bumping at the new member office lottery on Nov. 30, are among the Democrats firmly opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s speaker bid. Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., is among those who voted against Pelosi in caucus elections but appears open to supporting her on the floor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Reps.-elect Max Rose, D-N.Y., left, and Jason Crow, D-Colo., pictured fist bumping at the new member office lottery on Nov. 30, are among the Democrats firmly opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s speaker bid. Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., is among those who voted against Pelosi in caucus elections but appears open to supporting her on the floor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At least 15 Democrats resisting Nancy Pelosi’s speaker bid are holding firm in their opposition and say they plan to vote for someone other than the California Democrat during the Jan. 3 speaker election, providing Pelosi with little room to negotiate a victory.

With the House poised to have 235 Democrats seated on the opening day of the 116th Congress when the speaker election takes place, Pelosi can only afford to have 17 Democrats vote and say a name that is not hers to meet the 218-vote majority threshold. 

That leaves her with a two-vote margin of error to work with as she tries to flip other opponents into “yes” votes — unless she can convince some to vote “present” or abstain from voting, further lowering the 218 threshold.

Roll Call has spoken to 14 Democrats or their aides who say they are firmly opposed to Pelosi and will be saying someone else’s name on the floor. This reporter is also including in the firmly opposed camp Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, whose office could not be reached for comment, as he has voted for someone other than Pelosi, most often Colin Powell, in every speaker election since at least 2011.

There are at least four other Democrats (in addition to the aforementioned 15 firm opponents) who’ve said they won’t vote for Pelosi on the floor but haven’t explicitly ruled out voting “present.” 

“Present” votes and nonvoting members don’t count toward the vote total that is used to determine the majority threshold. Every member who abstains from voting in the speaker election or votes “present” is effectively a half-vote for Pelosi since two such votes would lower the majority threshold she needs to reach by one vote.

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Potential ‘present’ votes

Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey is among the 32 Democrats who voted “no” on Pelosi in a caucus ballot last month that asked whether members supported her as the party’s speaker nominee. He told reporters after the vote that he hasn’t ruled out voting “present” on the floor. 

“The only thing I know for sure is I will not be voting for her,” Van Drew said. “That is a commitment, a pledge and a promise that I made to the people who live in my district. I ran on it as part of my campaign promise, and I’m not going to break that.”

Aides to Rep. Linda T. Sánchez of California and Rep.-elect Anthony Brindisi of New York confirmed their bosses also remain opposed to Pelosi but declined to say whether they were open to voting “present.”

“Her position hasn’t changed from the letter she signed,” Sánchez spokesman Alex Nguyen said, referring to a letter initially signed by 16 Democrats calling for new leadership and saying they would vote that way in caucus and on the floor. 

Two of the initial letter signatories — Reps. Brian Higgins of New York and Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts — have since reversed course and are supporting Pelosi, citing her commitments to pursuing their policy priorities, such as an infrastructure overhaul that was already a top item on the House Democrats’ agenda. 

California Rep.-elect Gil Cisneros, who was a late addition to the letter, also appears to be warming to supporting Pelosi or at least voting “present.”

“Gil will continue to call for new voices and new leadership. But Gil will not vote for the Republican designee,” his spokesman Nic Jordan said in e-mail. He did not respond to follow up e-mails asking for further clarification.  

Some Pelosi supporters have tried to paint the speaker election as a binary choice between her and the newly elected Republican leader, her fellow Californian Kevin McCarthy, but that is not the case.

If all Republicans voted for McCarthy, the maximum votes he could get is 200, and Pelosi already has more than 200 Democrats publicly supporting her. That means there is no viable scenario in which McCarthy could be elected speaker.

Brindisi campaign manager Ellen Foster declined to directly answer a question about whether her boss intends to say a name other than Pelosi’s or if he’s open to voting “present.”

“Congressman-elect Brindisi plans to uphold his campaign promise,” she said in an e-mail. “He will not be supporting Nancy Pelosi as speaker.”

Maine Rep.-elect Jared Golden’s campaign manager Jon Breed confirmed that his boss has not changed his mind about voting against Pelosi but said he wasn’t sure if he intended to say another person’s name or if he was open to voting “present.” He said Golden’s team was focused on a recount effort underway for his race and thus unlikely to have an immediate response to that question. 

Three Democrats who voted against Pelosi in the caucus election — Reps.-elect Mikie Sherrill and Andy Kim of New Jersey and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan — have not yet said how they’ll vote on the floor. Their spokespersons did not return requests for comment.

While most other incoming freshmen have publicly announced their support for Pelosi or signaled they are leaning that way, three have been mum: Reps.-elect Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Steven Horsford of Nevada and Greg Stanton of Arizona.

Stanton, notably, is replacing newly elected Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. During the last three speaker elections under the Republican majority, Sinema never voted for Pelosi, opting instead to say Georgia Rep. John Lewis’s name.

Few viable options

With all of these members’ positions unclear, Pelosi cannot really afford for any more of her opponents to commit to saying another name on the floor. Ideally, she needs to convince some of her opponents to vote “present.” 

For example, if Van Drew, Sánchez, Brindisi and Golden were to vote “present,” then she would only need 216 votes to be elected speaker, leaving a buffer for up to 19 Democrats to vote for someone else.

But if just three of them were to join the other 15 in committing to say another name on the floor, then Pelosi only really has three options, none of which seem very viable. 

One would be to give into the one demand that at least a handful of the firm opponents say would be the only thing that would make them budge: Pelosi outlining a clear plan for when and how she plans to transition out of leadership and let a new generation take the reins. 

So far Pelosi has flatly refused to put any sort of expiration date on her speakership, saying she won’t allow herself to be weakened by a lame-duck status. 

Another option that Pelosi has also rejected is to turn to Republicans for support — or at least to ask them to abstain from voting.  She insists she can win the speaker election with Democratic votes.

New York Rep. Tom Reed, the one Republican who’s expressed openness to helping her, said he hasn’t heard from Pelosi. Reed co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Democrats in that group leveraged their speaker votes to get Pelosi to agree to some rules changes designed to facilitate more bipartisan legislating, but Reed said Republican Problem Solvers — nine of whom remain after the party’s midterm losses — would need her to commit to more. For example, Reed pointed to a Problem Solvers proposal to require a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule curtailing members’ ability to offer amendments.

“It depends on the extent of the reforms,” he said of the possibility of GOP Problem Solvers helping Pelosi. He added that a “present” vote would be a more realistic ask if Pelosi decided to turn to Republicans, given that “voting for her, even talking about it, is toxic.”

Pelosi’s final option would be to hope some of her opponents, Democrats or Republicans, end up missing the Jan. 3 vote.  It’s uncommon for members to be absent on the first day of a session, as that’s when they’re sworn in, but it’s not unprecedented.

At the start of the 114th Congress in 2015, roughly two dozen members were not present for the speaker vote because of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s funeral in New York and snow in Washington.

Pelosi has just 24 days left before the speaker floor vote to figure out this math problem. 

A Pelosi aide continued to express high levels of confidence and pointed to the slow trickle of people who have expressed strong opposition in the past and then changed their minds.  

One vote that won’t be an issue for Pelosi is her own. While other speakers have declined to vote for themselves, Pelosi was not afraid to do so when she was elected the first woman speaker in 2007 and secured a second term with the gavel in 2009. She also voted for herself in the following years when Republicans held the majority. 

Current Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his predecessor John A. Boehner, both Republicans, abstained from voting during their speaker elections. J. Dennis Hastert, the Republican who held the gavel before Pelosi, voted “present” during his speaker elections. 

The 15 firm ‘No’s on Pelosi

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