Nancy Pelosi is one step closer to a historic return to the speakership, having handily won her party’s nomination to lead the House in the 116th Congress.
But she’s not there yet. Pelosi will still have to pick up roughly 15 votes to get back to the speaker’s chair, although the California Democrat, her allies and aides are increasingly confident she will get there after Wednesday’s meeting of the Democratic Caucus.
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Pelosi even appeared to have picked up support after the meeting ended, as Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) — who has been opposed to her — signaled he might back her.
During the caucus session, the speaker vote for Pelosi was 203 yeas, 32 nos, with three blank ballots and one absent.
Even before knowing the official results, Pelosi declared it “a vote of confidence” in her leadership, noting repeatedly that no other lawmaker challenged her.
“Are there dissenters? Yes,” Pelosi said. “But I see this as a powerful vote of confidence.”
Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) were unopposed for House majority leader and majority whip, respectively, putting the septuagenarian trio — assuming Pelosi wins on the House floor — back in the same posts they held in the most recent Democratic majority.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, was unanimously appointed assistant Democratic leader, the No. 4 post in the party hierarchy. Luján is now the highest ranking Hispanic lawmaker in Congress.
The caucus results were a vast improvement for Pelosi from 2016, when 63 Democrats voted for Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) to be minority leader over her. This time, Pelosi is coming off a historic Democratic victory on Election Day, and she had no challenger.
Pelosi can now get back to doing to what she is best known for — grinding her way to victory.
Indeed, the California Democrat is now on track to become the first lawmaker since the legendary Sam Rayburn in the 1950s to make a return engagement as speaker. Pelosi called such an outcome “fabulous,” and she showed no doubt about the final result. “Yes, yes,” Pelosi responded when asked about whether she will get the votes to be speaker.
In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Pelosi sought to lock down more support. She cut a deal with the Problems Solvers Caucus over rules changes, sealing support from nine Democratic members of the group who had threatened to vote against her.
Pelosi also met with three of her most vocal critics — Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Ryan — in a bid to win over hardcore opponents.
The anti-Pelosi group had held a private discussion on Tuesday evening, during which some lawmakers raised the possibility of backing Pelosi if she agreed to a transition timeline for new leadership, said the sources.
During the meeting with Moulton, Rice and Ryan, Pelosi declined to agree to a timeline to transition out of leadership, according to the three more junior lawmakers.
“I have said since the very beginning this is not personal to Nancy Pelosi, this is not even just about her, this is about the entire [leadership] team,” Rice said after Pelosi was officially nominated. “It’s about agitating for change. That’s what we need up here.”
The critics also argued Pelosi would currently still fall short on the floor.
“Right now, Leader Pelosi will not have the 218 votes necessary to become speaker,” Moulton said in a statement. “Her three-person leadership team has been unchanged in 11 years. Our request was, and has always been, simple. Produce a meaningful plan for a leadership transition, as you promised in the summer, to allow a new generation of leadership to step forward.”
Pelosi, though, appears to be on the verge of getting Lynch’s backing. Lynch said a meeting with Pelosi on Wednesday went “very, very well,” adding she promised to prioritize two initiatives important to him —infrastructure and pension reform — in the new Congress.
For now, Lynch is waiting for more details about the role he can play with both issues before making an official commitment. Lynch thinks Pelosi will garner the votes to become speaker Jan. 3.
“I do,” Lynch told POLITICO when asked whether he thought she’d win the speakership.
Pelosi also was successful in closing the deal with the Problem Solvers Caucus members who want to rewrite House rules to make it easier to legislate in a bipartisan manner. Pelosi agreed to some, but not all, of their requested rules changes.
Anti-Pelosi Democrats had been downplaying expectations heading into Wednesday’s closed-door meeting. They said they had hoped to get roughly 20 votes opposing Pelosi inside the Democratic Caucus.
Inside the room, Pelosi was nominated by Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, while a group of eight lawmakers — including incoming freshmen Angie Craig of Minnesota, Veronica Escobar of Texas and Katie Hill of California — seconded the nomination. Civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia also spoke on Pelosi’s behalf.
Kennedy’s support for Pelosi is notable because another Massachusetts Democrat, Moulton, is one of her most outspoken critics inside the party.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) choked up as he spoke on Pelosi’s behalf, and Lewis made an emotional appeal for her nomination.
“Believe in me. I would not lie to you. I’ve seen the struggle. I’ve been beaten, left bloodied, left unconscious. I almost died on that bridge in Selma,” Lewis said, according to a source in the room, referring to the famous 1965 civil rights march.
“But Nancy’s been with us, and she will be with us now, tomorrow, and in the years to come. I ask for you, I beg of you, I plead with you to go and do what we must do, and cast your vote for Nancy Pelosi as the next speaker of the House.”
Pelosi then used the speaker ballot as something of a safety valve by allowing vulnerable Democrats to vote “no.” This enabled Democrats who won races in which Pelosi was an issue to say they opposed her return to the speaker’s chair, but now must back her since she has the overwhelming support of the Democratic Caucus.
Some of the freshmen who planned to vote against Pelosi were unmoved, while others suggested they might be able to back her on the floor, or at least vote “present” to make it easier for her to get to the majority threshold.
“I made a promise to the people in my district that I would be a no. A no under any circumstances,” said Rep.-elect Max Rose (D-N.Y.). “I find it laughable that no matter how many times I tell you this, you think this may change.”
However, Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who said he would oppose Pelosi’s nomination, sounded open to possibly voting “present.”
“I need to look at that and learn about that a little bit and really understand the full dimensions of it,” Van Drew told reporters.
Behind the scenes, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were dealing with potential Democratic Caucus rules changes as they sought to clinch more votes.
In the days leading up to the vote, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) floated the idea of opening up the secret ballot election so that incoming freshmen who ran on a platform of opposing Pelosi or electing new leadership could show constituents they did.
But Pelosi instead opted to include “yes” and “no” checkboxes under her nomination to give members-elect the option of voting against her in caucus — with, of course, the notion that they would back her when she needs them most on the House floor on Jan. 3.
On that day, Pelosi needs half of the House — not merely half the Democrats. And she can lose only 17 votes.
Democrats predicted that incoming freshmen would likely snap pictures of their ballots showing their opposition to Pelosi in caucus. But that’s all part of a carefully crafted Pelosi plan to allow some incoming members to argue they opposed her even if they support her on the House floor.
Connolly predicted Pelosi would receive less opposition this year than in 2016, when she lost 63 Democrats to Ryan for minority leader.
“It was easy to cast a protest vote two years ago, and you had an opponent,” the Virginia Democrat said. “This is serious. This is now for speaker. And you have to really assess carefully what are the qualities, what are the skill sets and who has them. And I think that makes it harder frankly.”
Party leaders have also been fending off other potential Democratic Caucus rules changes. One would require that the party’s speaker nominee get 218 votes, a shot at Pelosi. Another would limit the party leadership’s control over committee assignments.
Another rules change would require any lawmaker who is a part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hierarchy to back incumbents only. This is aimed at Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who backed Rep. Dan Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) primary challenger.
“[The amendment] wasn’t my idea, but I certainly think it’s a good idea,” Lipinski said. “The DCCC’s purpose is to help get Democrats elected, and I think the DCCC should be helping out Democrats, certainly incumbent Democrats.”