Political News

Four key factors to watch in Nancy Pelosi's bid for House speaker

Posted November 23, 2018 2:51 p.m. EST

— House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's campaign to become House speaker early next year was bolstered by several positive developments in recent days, with less than a week to go before her caucus votes in leadership elections.

Her most prominent possible challenger -- Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio -- decided against running and instead endorsed Pelosi. The California Democrat also secured the backing of at least one other Democrat who had previously said he'd support new leadership.

But as always, a lot could change before the House of Representatives holds a vote to elect the next House Speaker in January when the new Democrat-led Congress comes to Washington. On Friday, nine Democrats said they'd oppose Pelosi's bid to be speaker unless she backed their proposed slate of House rule changes to empower rank-and-file members to push bills in the chamber, a power now reserved for the leadership.

The final floor vote in January will come after House Democrats pick a nominee for speaker by a majority vote the week after Thanksgiving.

Here are four key factors to watch that could indicate whether Pelosi or her detractors are gaining momentum in the run-up to the final vote:

Will the number of anti-Pelosi votes change?

Sixteen Democrats -- including incumbents and incoming freshmen -- had signed onto a letter vowing to vote for "new leadership." Of those 16, one -- Rep. Brian Higgins of New York -- decided earlier this week to change his position and back Pelosi.

In addition, there are several other House Democrats who did not sign the letter but have still said they plan to oppose Pelosi. The question now is whether the number of anti-Pelosi Democrats grow or will it shrink.

If more Democrats come out against Pelosi, it would show that the opposition is gaining ground in its effort to derail her speakers' bid. But it's also possible that some Democrats could decide not to oppose her after all.

That happened in dramatic fashion Tuesday when Fudge, a Pelosi critic who had been weighing a possible entry into the race as a challenger, announced that she would in fact back Pelosi for speaker.

Another possibility to keep an eye on: Will any Democrats publicly announce that they plan to vote "present" in the final floor vote or specifically vote for someone else besides Pelosi?

To be elected speaker on the House floor, Pelosi will need a majority of all members present and voting. A numerical majority of the full House would equate to 218 votes. But it's possible that Pelosi could win with fewer than 218 votes if some members opt out by voting "present," a move that would not automatically count either for or against her, but would instead lower the overall majority threshold needed to win the gavel.

Will an official challenger emerge to Pelosi or not?

The anti-Pelosi crowd was dealt a major blow when Fudge endorsed her for Speaker.

Fudge was the only alternative to Pelosi to emerge. But with Fudge backing Pelosi, there is now very little time before House Democrats pick a nominee for other potential candidates to mount a challenge.

The absence of any challenger may be the most glaring issue for Pelosi detractors in their effort to shake up the leadership hierarchy.

There are certainly reasons why potential challengers would be dissuaded. If anyone does challenge Pelosi, he or she will be inviting intense scrutiny and criticism in going up against a veteran Democratic lawmaker with powerful allies.

What will Pelosi do next?

Whether the number of Democrats who have said they will vote against Pelosi grows larger or smaller could depend in part on what the veteran Democratic leader does next.

Pelosi wields significant influence in her current role as House minority leader and would have even more power if she becomes speaker. She could use that to court votes by cutting deals and making promises to Democrats. Pelosi is expected to easily win the speakers' nomination next week and she will have several weeks after that to try to bring over opponents before the final vote in January.

For example, Pelosi could offer assistance to lawmakers who hope to advance a particular legislative priority. She could tap into her experience as a formidable fundraiser to broker connections between a member and donors or other prominent Democrats. Or she could use her position of power and network of allies to help a lawmaker secure a coveted spot on a powerful committee in the next Congress.

Pelosi has already reached out to some of her detractors ahead of the caucus vote.

Last week, she met with Fudge, who told reporters after the meeting that Pelosi did not ask her specifically not to run, but did ask what Fudge would need in order to support her bid.

On the same day that Fudge said she had decided to support Pelosi after all, Pelosi made an announcement of her own, saying in a statement that that she plans to revive the House Administration subcommittee on elections and make Fudge the chair in the new Congress.

"Chairwoman Fudge will play a critical role in our Democratic Majority's efforts to ensure access to the ballot box for all Americans," Pelosi said.

And as Democrats call for new leadership, Pelosi could also outline plans for when she might leave Congress. Higgins, the New York Democrat who reversed his position this week, told CNN that he spoke with Pelosi five times in 72 hours, and while Pelosi did not tell him when she would leave the speakership, but he said he believes she is likely to bow out after the 2020 elections.

Several influential progressive groups, including MoveOn, held off on announcing their support for Pelosi until last week when Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal released a statement saying that they had met with Pelosi and that the House Democratic leader shared some of their key priorities for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

One other progressive who appears at least at this point on board with supporting Pelosi: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The rising star and self-described democratic socialist tweeted Wednesday: "So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for Speaker, she can count on my support."

Will Republicans help Pelosi?

Pelosi insists that she can win the speakers' gavel with Democratic votes. But at least one Republican member of Congress -- and the President -- have fueled speculation over whether GOP lawmakers could end up helping Pelosi prevail in the race, possibly to gain leverage to advance their own priorities or in a bid to keep one of their favorite partisan targets in place.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from New York, said he would be open to backing Pelosi under certain conditions -- such as if she endorses a bipartisan package of rules changes that nine Democrats also pushed that would make it easier to push legislation and weaken the power of the leadership to dictate the agenda on the House floor (Both Reed and the nine Democrats are part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus).

Trump himself said last weekend that he could help Pelosi secure the necessary votes.

"I can get Nancy Pelosi as many votes as she wants in order for her to be Speaker of the House. She deserves this victory, she has earned it - but there are those in her party who are trying to take it away. She will win!" Trump tweeted.

Pelosi has dismissed the idea that she could win with GOP support. "Oh please, no, never," she said during a recent press conference when asked about the possibility.

But Republicans don't necessarily need to cast a vote for Pelosi to help her out. They could also help her simply by not showing up to the vote since absences could lower the majority threshold that she needs to hit to win.

There would be clear liabilities if a Democrat won the speakership with help from Republicans. That could give Republicans leverage over the Speaker and might embolden Democratic critics to call even more loudly for new leadership in the future.