House

Nancy Pelosi starts working on her math problem in Speaker vote

Nancy Pelosi has a puzzle to solve as she embarks on her quest to reclaim the Speaker's gavel.

A dozen Democratic candidates who have been critical of the California Democrat won election to Congress on Tuesday night, while another 12 incumbents have vowed to oppose Pelosi's bid to lead the conference.

Pelosi, who likely can't afford more than a dozen Democrats voting against her in a public floor vote for Speaker, knows she has little room for error and has already been taking steps to whittle down her potential numbers problem.

Democrats are likely to have just a 20- to 25-seat majority after the midterms once a handful of contested races are determined.

"She's got a serious math problem," said one Democratic lawmaker who has been in contact with both anti-Pelosi candidates and incumbents.

The good news for Pelosi, a fundraising juggernaut who helped the party seize back power for the first time since 2010, is that she's been preparing for this moment for some time - which is one of the reasons why many on Capitol Hill are predicting that she will ultimately close the deal.

The minority leader crisscrossed the country to elevate many of the first-time candidates who carried their party to victory on Tuesday, winning loyalty in the process.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told The Hill that some members of the insurgent group of Pelosi detractors are gettable.

"A couple of them may be a firm no. I think for some - for some of these incoming candidates - I think there are probably things that can be done [to win their support]," he said. "I think one of those things is ... clarifying what the term 'transitional' might mean. Because I think that does make a difference in terms of the way people [will choose whether to] support."

Pelosi is also a historic figure herself: the first female Speaker in another "year of the woman" for Democrats.

"2018 was the Year of the Woman and the last thing Democrats will do when they elect a historic number of women to the Congress is tell the one and only woman who has ever had a seat at the top levels of American government that she needs to go and be replaced with a man," said one senior Democratic aide.

Other aides and observers agreed that it would be foolish to bet against Pelosi, a shrewd political operator who has been a master of her caucus.

Just three of the candidates who have been critical of Pelosi have actually vowed to oppose her unconditionally. Others have given themselves some wiggle room, which could allow Pelosi to pick off some detractors by twisting arms or sweetening the pot.

"She's going to use every tool in her toolbox," the Democratic lawmaker said.

At least 12 Democratic candidates who have been outwardly critical of Pelosi won their election Tuesday night, according to an analysis from The Hill.

Three of them are firm "no" votes on Pelosi.

Rep.-elects Jason Crow (Colo.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.), as well as Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who won a full two-year term, have said they won't vote for Pelosi on the House floor.

Several other Democrats critical of Pelosi have been more vague about their intentions ahead of the Nov. 28 Democratic leadership elections.

Seven Democrats have said they oppose Pelosi as Speaker, but have not said how they'll vote. This group comprises Rep.-elects Haley Stevens (Mich.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Jeff Van Drew (N.J.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Joe Cunningham (S.C.) and Jahana Hayes (Conn.).

Two others simply say they want new leadership: Rep.-elects Dean Phillips (Minn.) and Max Rose (N.Y.). On paper, that opens the door to changes in the leadership team that might not include Pelosi.

Pelosi has pitched the idea of a "transitional" Speakership where she'd serve until the end of the next Congress. That strategy is seen as a way to make it more palatable for critical Democrats to back her.

Pelosi expressed confidence Wednesday that she would secure the votes to become Speaker, saying she was the best person for the job and dismissing further questions on the matter.

"It's not about what you have done, it's about what you can do," Pelosi told reporters. "And I think I'm the best person to go forward, to unify, to negotiate."

Another real issue is that no formidable challenger to Pelosi has emerged.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who challenged Pelosi in 2016 and garnered 63 votes, told The Hill early Wednesday morning he has "no intentions" of challenging her, though he added that he hasn't completely "closed the door on it."

Ryan said those looking for new leaders need to hear from newly elected Democrats about who they think should be Speaker.

There are competing theories about how much freedom incoming Democratic freshmen who voiced opposition to Pelosi on the campaign trail will have in a vote on the Speakership.

One camp says those lawmakers can satisfy their campaign promises by opposing Pelosi in the closed-door caucus vote, even if they support her on the House floor - particularly if the alternative is empowering Republicans. Defections on the floor, at some point, could just lead to a GOP Speaker.

"There's a way out," said a former House leadership aide. "[You tell voters,] 'I voted against her in the caucus, but I'm not going to vote against the Democratic nominee - whoever that might be - for Speaker."

An opposing camp says voters would never buy that argument, and that it would be political suicide to support Pelosi on the floor and claim to have opposed her behind closed doors.

One former Democratic lawmaker said that while "that might work in Washington," it won't resonate outside the Beltway.

"The first thing you did after being elected was to lie to voters," the lawmaker added. "If you got elected in any kind of competitive district, good luck with that one."

Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a vocal Pelosi detractor who has been calling fellow Democrats to build support for an insurgency, said he counts at least 12 lawmakers who will go to the floor and oppose the longtime leader in January, regardless of the outcome of the elections.

A Democratic chief of staff, not affiliated with Pelosi's opponents but familiar with their tactics, confirmed the group of die-hard opponents is roughly a dozen strong.

"They call themselves the insurgents; they talk on the phone every two days; they are solid believers," the chief of staff said, adding that they're also putting pressure on other Democrats to join their cause.

A senior Democratic aide said those dynamics will likely set up "a game of chicken," with insurgents vowing to oppose Pelosi while a majority of the caucus puts "enormous pressure" on the detractors to rally behind the Democratic nominee for the sake of party unity.

The question, the senior aide said, "is whether or not we want to look like idiots by going to the floor and not being able to elect a Speaker."

While Pelosi still faces a number of hurdles, she appears the best positioned to win the Speaker's gavel, especially given the historic number of women elected to the House.

Pelosi has also given Democratic candidates a huge financial boost. According to fundraising numbers analyzed by The Hill, Pelosi donated a staggering $121 million to the House Democrats' campaign arm and candidates running in the most competitive House races this cycle.

Pelosi could pick up more supporters by courting detractors with plum committee posts, choice office space, special assignments and the promise of House rule changes. Or, if she chooses to rule with a more iron fist, she could threaten to deny subcommittee gavels to lawmakers who defy her.

"To attack her is to reject so much of the agenda that President Obama passed," said freshman Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a fellow Bay Area-lawmaker who supports Pelosi for Speaker but has called for generational change in leadership.

"She's a symbol. If you believe in the [Affordable Care Act], if you believe in Dodd-Frank, if you believe in the stimulus bill ... how can you not respect Pelosi's leadership?"

This story was updated at 6:29 p.m.

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