At her press conference one day after winning back control of the House of Representatives, Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi laid on the bipartisan appeals a little thick. She spoke of her chummy conversations with President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about getting a bipartisan infrastructure bill done, and how she and House Speaker Paul Ryan, two peas in a pod, “discussed how it is to win, and how it is not to win.” She mentioned that she worked well with President George W. Bush after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. She quoted Ronald Reagan.
The one thing she didn’t want to discuss at length, and refused to take more than a couple of questions on, was her own grip on power. When asked if she was confident that she would be the next speaker, she simply said, “Yes, I am.”
That’s not the same thing as having the speakership votes locked down.
Nancy Pelosi has some work to do. Though many of the most vociferously anti-Pelosi Democratic candidates didn’t win their races—sensibly enough, since the redder the district, the more anti-Pelosi the candidate—about a dozen of the new winners said enough on the campaign trail to give themselves re-election headaches if they ultimately support her for speaker.
Some were more definitive than others. Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who began the trend of candidates rejecting Pelosi during his early 2018 special election win and maintained that posture in his campaign for a full term in a new district, has stated explicitly that he will not support her on the floor, as have incoming members Jason Crow of Colorado and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. Others who have gone on the record calling for new leadership, if not quite promising their firstborns that they would never support Pelosi, include Mikie Sherrill and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose of New York, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Dean Phillips in Minnesota, Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, and Jahana Hayes in Connecticut.
Another dozen or so incumbent Democrats have been seeking to oust Pelosi too. This group includes Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged her for minority leader in 2016, New York Reps. Kathleen Rice and Brian Higgins, Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, Texas Rep. Filemon Vela, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, and some others. And then there’s Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, who may not be an active plotter but never votes for Pelosi on the floor.
When the dust settles, the Democrats will have roughly a dozen-vote majority—though that could increase as votes continue trickling in—with about two dozen opposed to Pelosi serving as speaker. She needs a simple majority to win. That math doesn’t add up in her favor.
But she’ll figure it out.
This is not just me peddling the old “Nancy Pelosi controls all” narrative. It simply would not make sense for the experienced Democratic leader who orchestrated (and paid for) a disciplined, health care–focused, and successful pickup of some 35 seats and the House majority to not become speaker.
Her efforts have already begun. In a letter to all members and members-elect Wednesday night, Pelosi “respectfully” asked for their speakership votes with “confidence and humility.” She said that she plans to speak with each member individually to “gather the best ideas on how to strengthen the institution we serve and to honor our responsibilities under Article I.”
And, of course, to see what members need for their votes. In some cases these could be district-specific requests. If a new member represents a district with a strong military presence, say, Pelosi could offer a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. She also has control over placement on various commissions and could offer to pay campaign debts.
There are also rule changes to bargain. As the Hill reported on Tuesday, one group of 14 Democrats vowed to withhold its speakership votes unless Pelosi agrees to a package of rule changes that “includes giving fast-track consideration to any bill with widespread support, making it easier to add amendments to legislation and making it harder for a small group of rebellious lawmakers to oust the Speaker.” Leadership might like some of those changes (the last one) more than others (ceding control over the amendment process, even if leaders say they’d like for it to be more open). But it’s a negotiation.
Pelosi can also rationally hope that the generic calls from candidates for “new leadership” could be satisfied through the competitive down-ticket leadership races. There are already serious races for the No. 4, 5, and 6 spots—assistant Democratic leader, caucus chairman, and vice caucus chairman—that will determine the next generation of House Democratic leadership when the Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn regime leaves.
And when will that be? All three of those leaders, sensing the impatience underneath them, have talked more over the last year about their intentions to serve as “transitional” or “bridge” leaders for the next generation. Pelosi doesn’t want to make herself a lame duck by announcing when that “transition” will take place, so don’t expect her to say “in two years.” But she may have to find a way to clarify this.
If Pelosi still doesn’t have the votes, she could try to persuade a few House members to vote “present” during the floor vote. This would lower the threshold of a House majority from 218. It’s doubtful that, say, you could get 20 Democrats to do this—especially among new members, who don’t want to look like complete chickenshits right out of the gate—but some of the safer members who just happen to despise Pelosi might be convinced for the right price.
Expect her to come up with the right combination. It won’t be nearly as hard as, say, whipping a majority to vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. And to some of those members who might think, right now, that there’s no way they could ever vote for Nancy Pelosi? Enjoy your one-on-one meetings.