House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will embark Sunday on what stands to be her most difficult term yet – thanks to a diminished majority, a potentially fractious corps of left-wing lawmakers, the jockeying of would-be successors and the legislative ambitions of a Democratic president.
First, however, she has to get elected.
The speaker election will be the first high-wire act of many Pelosi, D-Calif., is likely to face over the next two years, which she has signaled could be her last in the House. The razor-thin margin created by Democratic losses in November has prompted a vote-counting scramble in recent weeks as Pelosi’s lieutenants seek to ensure enough Democrats show up and cast their ballots for her fourth term as speaker.
“I guarantee everybody who can get here will be here,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said last week. But he acknowledged that leaves a good deal of uncertainty in a House that will begin with a 222-to-211 majority – the narrowest either party has had in 20 years – and has been racked with absences amid the pandemic: “That’s a challenge we’re going to have to work around.”
Pelosi and her top aides maintain she has locked up the necessary votes for her reelection as speaker – “I’m fine,” she told reporters Monday. But during a phone session with lawmakers earlier that day, Pelosi acknowledged she was concerned about attendance.
“My opponent is Covid,” she said, according to a Democrat on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount the private conversation.
Top Democrats were encouraging colleagues to travel to Washington earlier than planned to ensure attendance.
Should the vote go awry, it could spark internal chaos for Democrats and delay the election of a speaker for days – and also complicate the much-anticipated Jan. 6 joint session during which Republican lawmakers are expected to challenge the tallying of electoral college votes for President-elect Joe Biden.
The precipitous nature of the speaker vote – and the mortal dangers associated with lawmaking amid a pandemic – were highlighted in recent days by the sudden death of Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, a 41-year-old Louisiana Republican who had contracted covid-19 last month. Four other members or members-elect have disclosed recent coronavirus infections that could affect attendance Sunday.
The challenge facing Pelosi is markedly different from the one she faced two years ago, when a platoon of lawmakers agitated for her and other top honchos to step aside for a younger generation of leaders.
This time, no Democratic lawmaker is openly challenging Pelosi, 80, for the speakership. Her top deputies, Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., were reelected without opposition. In fact, several of her former critics are now openly praising her past two years of leadership.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, joined the effort to oust Pelosi two years ago and voted against her on the floor. He would not commit to voting for her in a recent interview but credited her with “saying the right things” and having “learned quite a bit” since the 2018 clash.
“If anyone can steer the caucus, those three can do it,” he said. “That’s a reason in favor of [electing] them one last time, to really help bind us together to the extent we can.”
Still, the arithmetic is tight: If all 433 seated members were to vote Sunday, no more than five Democrats could break ranks – though members could be absent or vote “present” and thus reduce the majority threshold for Pelosi.
Of the 15 Democrats who did not vote for Pelosi two years ago, three lost reelection, while Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., switched parties, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., is locked in an ultratight race where ballots are still being counted.
Brindisi’s seat will remain vacant Sunday and will likely remain so for weeks to come. Pelosi is, however, moving to seat a Republican, Rep.-elect Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, whose six-vote victory is under review by the Committee on House Administration. Pelosi seated Miller-Meeks after the state certified her election and as Republicans warned against any attempt to overturn the result.
Some of the remaining 10 lawmakers have signaled they will likely vote for Pelosi, including Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Jason Crow, D-Colo. Others, such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., have signaled they could vote present, thus taking no position on Pelosi, while others, such as Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., have said they will keep their campaign promises and choose other candidates.
Since the height of the pandemic in March, scores of lawmakers have been physically absent from House votes. In May, Democrats changed House rules to allow for proxy voting, and more than 100 members have since taken advantage of the remote-voting option. All but a few, however, have been Democrats, as GOP leaders have gone to court to challenge the proxy-voting procedure as unconstitutional. At some House votes in recent weeks, more than 40 Republican members were absent.
But Sunday’s vote is different: Because the House is not scheduled to renew the proxy-voting rules for the new Congress until Monday, members will have to appear in person for the speaker vote one day earlier.
Clyburn, the Democrats’ top vote counter, said last week that he is encouraging lawmakers to arrive at least a day early to avoid any travel issues.
“We’re going to manage this,” he said. “I’ve had some pretty good success managing, I think I can manage this well.”
Less under the leadership’s control is the effect of the coronavirus and the possibility that late-breaking Covid diagnoses could upend the vote count.
Two House Democrats who recently had the disease are emerging from isolation just in time to travel to Washington and vote for Pelosi. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., tweeted Friday that it was his “Get Out of Covid Jail Day” after spending 10 days in his home. And an aide to Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said the congresswoman would attend the vote after announcing Monday that she had contracted the virus and experienced mild symptoms.
Sean Gard, Moore’s chief of staff, said Moore has cleared her travel with the congressional attending physician and will be flying from Milwaukee ahead of the vote. “Barring any weather, I think we’re good,” he said.
A Republican member-elect, María Elvira Salazar, disclosed Thursday that she had been diagnosed with Covid-19 after being admitted to the hospital for a heart condition. Salazar’s office said in a statement that she has been released but will continue to isolate and will not attend Sunday’s session.
Rep.-elect David Valadao of California said Sunday that he received a positive test result and was isolating pending the results of a more dependable PCR test.
Republicans are warning vulnerable Democrats that the unusual circumstances will not buffer them from the political consequences of a vote for Pelosi – who has been a potent figure in GOP ad campaigns for more than a decade.
The leaders of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC that spends tens of millions of dollars each cycle on House campaign advertising, warned Democrats this week that there is no easy way out – such as skipping the vote or voting present.
“Word to the wise,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the group. “Any of these moves will be considered a move to help Pelosi become speaker – and we’ll remind your constituents as much.”
But, several Democratic congressional aides said, there is less concern about a Pelosi backlash in the upcoming midterm elections given the speaker’s pledge to step aside after her current term. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of Pelosi’s plans.
Part of the deal that settled the insurrection against the veteran Democratic leaders after the 2018 election was a personal pledge from Pelosi not to serve more than two additional terms as speaker. After being nominated to the second of those terms in a November caucus vote, she suggested to reporters that she intends to honor that commitment.
Although she did not explicitly say she would leave the House altogether in two years – explaining she did not want to “undermine any leverage I may have” – she acknowledged her earlier pledge.
“Don’t let me have to be more specific than that, because we never expected to have another term now,” she added. “I consider this a gift. And I can’t wait to be working with Joe Biden and preparing us for our transition into the future.”