Pelosi may see more defections than Ryan in Speaker vote

It’s one of Washington’s favorite parlor games: guessing how many defections the House Speaker will face on the floor at the start of the new Congress.

But this year offers a twist.

Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton has helped unite the usual warring factions of the Republican Party while sowing deep divisions among shell-shocked Democrats who are still asking themselves how things went so horribly wrong.

It means that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will likely limit GOP defections to just a handful and comfortably cruise to reelection as the top leader in the House on Tuesday.

{mosads}Meanwhile, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could see defections from disgruntled Democrats climb into the double digits.

“I’d anticipate the Speaker passing the 218-vote threshold comfortably. He’s been transparent, inclusive and from my vantage point attentive to all members regardless of their ideological bent,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), whom the Speaker stumped for a month before the election.

“I’d expect the more interesting story will be the number of defections on the other side of the aisle.”

Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal icon and the first woman elected Speaker of the House, has led her party with an iron fist for the last 14 years. But each recent cycle has seen at least a handful of dissenters bucking the California Democrat by casting their votes elsewhere.

That number peaked at 20 in 2011, after an election thrashing that shifted control of the House — and the Speaker’s gavel — to the Republicans, prompting then-Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) to launch a rare challenge to Pelosi’s leadership perch.

More recently, those protest votes have plummeted. In 2013, just five Democrats — all of them conservative-leaning Blue Dogs — declined to back Pelosi on the floor. And the number dropped again to four in 2015, when Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Daniel Lipinski (Ill.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and outgoing Rep. Gwen Graham (Fla.) all favored other figures in symbolic opposition to Pelosi’s long reign.

It’s unclear how many lawmakers are poised to defy Pelosi this year. But following the Democrats’ dismal election showing in November — when party leaders were predicting upwards of 20 gains, only to pick up six seats — the unrest within the caucus, particularly among junior members, swelled enough to spark another challenge to Pelosi, this time at the hands of Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio).

Pelosi won the contest easily, but Ryan’s 63 votes marked a sharp jump above the 43 supporters Shuler had earned six years earlier in the closed-door caucus balloting.

The floor vote for Speaker is a different animal, because lawmakers must stand and voice their choice publicly without the privilege of anonymity that surrounds each cycle’s secret-ballot caucus vote.

For now, only four Democrats are on record saying they will oppose Pelosi on the floor: Cooper, Lipinski, Sinema and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.). That number is expected to grow by Tuesday’s roll call but still fall shy of the 20 defections she faced in 2011 given the diminished ranks of the Blue Dogs these days.

To win his first full two-year term as Speaker, Paul Ryan needs to secure a simple majority of the House members who show up to vote that day. That means if all 435 lawmakers are present, Ryan needs at least 218 votes.

In the new 115th Congress, Republicans will control 241 seats.

Several GOP lawmakers predicted that Ryan will manage to keep defections under 10, the number of Republicans who bucked the Speaker in 2015. That would be a remarkable turnaround from shortly before the election, when Hill Republicans were privately discussing the possibility Ryan might resign if Trump narrowly lost the presidency.

Ryan had infuriated Trump loyalists on and off Capitol Hill after he all but abandoned the GOP nominee following the release of a 2005 tape of Trump bragging about groping women without consent or consequence because he’s a celebrity.

But Trump triumphed and helped Republicans keep control of both chambers of Congress. Recognizing that they’d be able to pass a 2017 GOP agenda if they worked together, Trump and Ryan quickly patched things up. In fact, Ryan presented Trump with a Green Bay Packers jersey at a victory rally in Wisconsin, which marked their first-ever joint appearance on a stage.

Even some vocal critics in the right-wing Freedom Caucus, which pressured Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign in 2015, are coming around to backing Ryan.  

“My constituents and I were very disappointed with Ryan’s tepid support of Trump leading up to the election,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), who had publicly criticized the Speaker before the election.

“But at this point, as long as Trump and Pence want Ryan as Speaker, I will vote for him. I would guess there will be between three and six defectors.”

A large number of Democratic defections would be an embarrassment for Pelosi and her leadership team, who are trying to project a focused, unified front.

For that reason, some Democrats are predicting the defections will be minimal, despite December’s party infighting.

“House Democrats are focused on presenting a united front against the Republican Congress and the administration of President-elect Trump. We won’t be following the lead of bad reporting in The Hill or obscure Republican congressmen,” said Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill.

Hammill noted that Tim Ryan asked for the Caucus vote for Pelosi to be unanimous following her win in December.

“The leadership race that we had was cathartic for the caucus in that we were able to have a spirited discussion about what we wanted the future to be,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a close Pelosi ally and fellow San Francisco Bay Area Democrat. “But I felt we were all unified coming out of it.”

“It’s hunker down and fight time,” added another House Democrat. “Both parties are trying to consolidate power and support.”

One way both Paul Ryan and Pelosi are trying to keep their rank-and-file members in line: delaying the assignment of coveted committee posts and top positions on subcommittees until after Tuesday’s vote. That makes it politically treacherous for House members to vote against their own leader.

“It’s a smart way to retain control,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

The 46-year-old Speaker has taken other measures to shore up support as well. He vigorously campaigned for vulnerable House colleagues and even hosted a fundraiser for outgoing Freedom Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Ryan agreed to limit some of his own power and revamp the influential Steering Committee, replacing committee chairmen on the panel with regional representatives.

Despite Trump’s unusual antics during the presidential transition, Ryan has refused to criticize any of the president-elect’s actions or Cabinet nominations.

A senior Democratic aide noted that Pelosi and other party leaders adopted a number of post-election caucus reforms, including the creation of several new leadership posts, designed largely to empower junior members and begin grooming them for a post-Pelosi era.

“She supported their changes and they were swiftly adopted,” the aide said.

As Ryan has quickly learned, leadership is not a popular place to be in the Republican Party. And in a recent radio interview, the Speaker sought to remind listeners that for years he had been considered one of the outside agitators calling on leaders to tackle entitlement reforms and deep spending cuts.

“I’ve spent more time, I’d say, in the peanut gallery and back bench than I have in leadership,” Ryan told conservative radio host Charlie Sykes.

This report was updated at 10:03 a.m.

Tags Boehner Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Boehner Paul Ryan
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video