House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi cleared what amounted to a ceremonial first hurdle toward the speakership on Wednesday, comfortably winning her caucus’s nomination for the job. Running unopposed, Pelosi won votes from 203 of her fellow Democrats (including delegates) and lost 32. Another three members left their ballots blank, while one, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, was absent with medical issues.
But the work doesn’t stop there.
Despite a narrative that rapidly swings from “she’s doomed!” to “she’s crushed the rebellion!” after each development, Pelosi’s math problem has remained roughly the same for the past few weeks. Twenty-two Democrats, as of this writing, have publicly announced or signed letters stating that they would not support her in the floor vote for speaker in January. Assuming each House member casts a vote, she can only afford 17 defections. And though she picked off a couple of high-profile defectors the week before Thanksgiving, the number of hardened opponents has since held strong.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Pelosi, who’s not very chatty about her whip counts, told reporters while the caucus vote was being held.
Pelosi did neutralize the weaker of her two troublesome blocs on Wednesday. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a centrist group looking for rules changes that would effectively kneecap the speaker’s authority and empower centrist members, announced just before the speaker’s vote that it had reached a deal with Pelosi and Rep. Jim McGovern, the incoming rules committee chairman. The deal includes some increased transparency measures—such as further notice of committee meetings—and one change that actually helps Pelosi by making it harder to overthrow a sitting speaker. Most of the other Problem Solvers proposals that would have seriously threatened Pelosi’s authority didn’t survive, or were only agreed to with serious wiggle room, in the deal.
It’s easy for Pelosi to negotiate and settle with a group of representatives who have discrete asks. It’s more complicated, though, to negotiate with a crowd whose one discrete ask is that she doesn’t become speaker.
The “rebels,” a term that might overstate the coolness of Reps. Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and Kathleen Rice, still have 16 members who’ve signed a letter saying they’re “committed” to voting against Pelosi on the floor. (Though Pelosi bought off one member of the group, New York Rep. Brian Higgins, the day before Thanksgiving, the group has since added California Rep.-elect Gil Cisneros to its ranks.) Several additional members, including Virginia Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger, Colorado Rep.-elect Jason Crow, Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, and Maine Rep.-elect Jared Golden, have said they wouldn’t vote for her on the floor but also wouldn’t sign any showy letters. Still other freshmen and incumbents remain evasive on how they’ll vote on the floor.
Early Wednesday afternoon, it briefly looked like Pelosi might wrap up all 218 votes she will need to become speaker ahead of the caucus vote. Moulton, one of the most vocal rebel ringleaders, had been wobbling in public in a way that suggested he was looking frantically for an out. And shortly before the caucus speaker vote, Moulton, along with Ryan and Rice, held a meeting with Pelosi.
But the meeting didn’t seem to go very well—depending on whom you ask. Pelosi’s side issued a terse statement saying only that “the Leader listened closely to the trio’s concerns.” (Emphasis on “trio,” as in: There were only three of them, getting in the way.) Rice’s description of the meeting suggested, though, that if the leader listened closely, she didn’t listen for very long.
“Moments ago we met with Leader Pelosi and tried to engage her in a reasonable conversation about leadership transition,” Rice said in a statement, as if they were grown children trying to show a stubborn parent a brochure for a nursing home. “Unfortunately, our concerns were dismissed outright.” Moulton, meanwhile, said he was “disappointed” that Pelosi would not engage on producing a “meaningful plan for a leadership transition.”
That seems to be the question on which this rebellion hinges: Will Pelosi find some way to at least intimate to these holdouts that she won’t stick around forever?
Pelosi doesn’t want to put a timer on when she’ll pass the torch for a couple of possible reasons. The first would be that she has no intention of ever leaving. The second, publicly stated reason is that she doesn’t want to make herself a lame duck by announcing a departure date. Such a move weakens the speakership, as the final eight months or so of Speaker Paul Ryan’s tenure have shown.
It’s difficult to figure out what Rice, Tim Ryan, and Moulton would accept for an answer. Speaking to reporters after the vote, Rice—who said that Pelosi “doesn’t have the ability to get to 218 votes on the floor”—said that she, as a “practical person,” understood the lame duck concern.
“But there has to be some succession plan, some transition,” she said. What can Pelosi do, though? Buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco for January 2021 and wink three times at her caucus? It’s hard to lame-duck yourself without lame-ducking yourself.
Pelosi now has about five weeks to figure it out, during which time the holdouts will feel the sort of pressure they’ve never felt before. The phone calls to holdouts, according to several aides, have made the transition from friendly, positive ones from prominent Democrats urging them to reconsider, to ones from their donors telling them to get in line. If persuasion won’t work, maybe money will.
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