How voting present could secure the Speakership for Nancy Pelosi

As Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE inches closer to securing the Speaker’s gavel, the California Democrat and her allies are moving into the second phase of their two-tier strategy to seal the deal: convince detractors to vote “present” on the House floor.

Registering a “present” vote, or not voting at all, would lower the overall threshold needed to become Speaker. But the move also would allow Democrats — and particularly freshman — who were critical of Pelosi on the campaign trail to say they kept their promise.

Behind-the-scenes, Pelosi has already begun urging some of her critics to adopt that exact strategy on the House floor, according to lawmakers.

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“Pelosi has released some members to vote no in caucus and then vote present on the House floor,” one Democratic member told The Hill.

Step one of that process began on Wednesday, when Democrats huddled behind closed doors in the Longworth Office Building on Capitol Hill to stage their leadership elections.

In a 203-32 secret-ballot vote, Democrats nominated Pelosi to be their next Speaker, with three lawmakers leaving the ballot blank. She needed only a simple majority of the caucus — roughly 120 votes — to become the nominee, but will need to secure a majority of the full House to become Speaker on Jan. 3.

Pelosi faced no challenger this year — a situation that, in normal circumstances, would have prompted a non-recorded voice vote, known as a vote by acclamation. Indeed, heading into the Thanksgiving break, Democratic leaders were planning to stage the vote without ballots.

Yet, for Pelosi, the absence of a challenger was a challenge in itself: it denied an opportunity for her critics — particularly incoming freshmen — to cast a vote against her. Without that chance, those newcomers would more likely be bound to oppose her during the floor vote in January, when her margin of error is much slimmer.

Pelosi’s response was simple: she created the opportunity for recorded opposition by distributing ballots in Wednesday’s gathering offering a simple “yes/no” option on the question of whether she should be Speaker.

“That was very helpful for the people who said she was not their first choice. They had the opportunity to express that,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget Dems plan 12-hour marathon Mueller report reading at Capitol Dems warn of 'constitutional crisis' but wary of impeachment MORE (D-Md.) told The Hill. “Constituents will be thoughtful of that. They will understand their representative registered a ‘no’ vote.”

Now, Pelosi needs to flip roughly 15 of her 32 opposition votes by Jan. 3 — a number she and her allies say is well within reach.

“I think we're in pretty good shape,” Pelosi said Wednesday, just after winning the nomination. “I don't want to make other people's announcements for them, but we go forward with confidence and humility.”

One way to pick off detractors is to sweeten the pot with committee assignments, legislative priorities and other promises. The strategy, which Pelosi has already deployed successfully in recent weeks, showcased its effectiveness yet again Thursday morning when Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchHouse Oversight Committee requests information on reported Trump plan to send TSA employees to border Lawmakers blast Wells Fargo chief over response to scandals Justin Amash is the unlikely GOP hero of Cohen hearing MORE (D-Mass.) — who has signed a letter vowing to oppose Pelosi — told The Hill he will now likely back the California Democrat.

“We had a great conversation and my goal is to get reassurances that we were going to adopt an agenda that would focus more intently on regular working families,” Lynch said. “And it seems that on a number of those issues, we’re aligned.”

Pelosi is expected to continue meeting with critics and hearing out their concerns in the coming weeks. Her allies also say that it’s much easier to vote against Pelosi behind closed-doors than in public. When Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget CNN announces four more town halls featuring 2020 Dems De Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' MORE (D-Ohio) challenged her in 2016, he garnered 63 votes in the secret-ballot, but only four Democrats subsequently opposed Pelosi on the floor. Ryan was not among them.

“[Pelosi] is going to have to do a lot of one-on-one politicking, which she is very good at,” Rep.  Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyWe can curb potential pandemics by investing in prevention tactics Mueller mystery: Will he ever testify to Congress? Dem leaders feel squeeze on Trump strategy MORE (D-Va.) told The Hill. “She will also meet with groups.”

Yet for most of those lawmakers who opposed Pelosi during the campaign, supporting her on the floor is not an option, regardless what carrots are offered.

With that in mind, Pelosi’s camp believes many of those lawmakers could be more easily convinced to vote “present” — a way to keep their campaign promises, without being responsible for tanking their party’s Speaker nominee and throwing the chamber into chaos.

“I’m certain that’s what [some of the freshman] are thinking of doing,” Raskin said, referring to voting present on the floor. “That’s the second best alternative. It’s certainly better than throwing things into chaos with multiple ballots.

“But it’s not as good as reaching 218,” he added.

To win the gavel, Pelosi needs the backing of the majority of lawmakers who are present and vote for an individual, which would be 218 if every lawmaker says a name on the House floor. But abstentions alter the math: for every two lawmakers who vote “present” — or decline to vote altogether — the number of votes needed to achieve a majority drops by one. If 10 people vote present, for example, she would need just 213 yes votes to clinch the Speakership.

Some incoming Democrats like Reps.-elect Max RoseMax RoseHillicon Valley: Trump signs cybersecurity executive order | Facebook bans 'dangerous' figures | Dems slam tech's response to extremist content | Trump meets Foxconn CEO over Wisconsin factory plans Dems slam 'vague explanations' by tech firms on extremist content House bill seeks to bolster security for synagogues, mosques in wake of attacks MORE (N.Y.) and Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamHarris, House Dems push for mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in public housing Freshman House Dems surge past GOP in money race The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (S.C.) have been crystal clear that they would not vote “present” on the floor, despite being asked by some of their future colleagues to do so.  

“People have been suggesting that,” Cunningham told the Hill. “That doesn’t make me waver on my position.”

But other freshman members who have been critical of Pelosi or voted against her in the secret ballot have not ruled out the option.

“I have to look over all the rules,” said Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), one of 16 members who signed the anti-Pelosi rebel letter. “I haven’t ruled out anything.”

“I need to look at that and learn about that a little bit, and really understand the full dimensions of that,” he added.

Many other incoming Democrats have dodged questions about their floor vote entirely, or released statements that appear to leave the door open to voting present — or even yes — in January.

“Back in May, I made a commitment to the residents of NJ-11 that I would seek new leaders in Congress who were going to help us move forward on the priorities here in our district. For that reason, today in caucus I did not support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House,” Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said in a statement on Wednesday.

The leaders of the anti-Pelosi insurgent group have dismissed the notion that opposing Pelosi behind closed doors is ample cover, politically, for lawmakers who might support her, or vote “present,” in the subsequent floor vote.

“People can see through that message,” said a Democratic aide aligned with the insurgent group.

“The Republicans will make it very clear that they still voted for her on the floor, which is kind of the only vote that matters,” added a second aide, also aligned with the insurgents.

Following Wednesday’s vote, Ryan predicted the incoming freshmen who have carved out anti-Pelosi positions would stand their ground, “because of the commitments they made, and because everybody’s just representing their district, at this point.”

And at least one anti-Pelosi Democrat who was thought to be gettable — Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindDems walk Trump trade tightrope Dems highlight NYT article on Trump's business losses in 'tax gap' hearing Congress can retire the retirement crisis MORE of Wisconsin — took his name off that list this week.

“If she’s interested in peeling off the 16 or 17 that she needs right now, she’s probably better off burning up the phone lines with other members at this point,” Kind told reporters Thursday.

But while Ryan predicted that the “majority” of the 32 no votes would stand firm, he emphasized that it wasn’t guaranteed.

“Nothing’s certain,” he told reporters.