Biden picks leave Democrats with slimmest House majority in modern history

Greg Nash

President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to tap Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for his new administration will mean Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) fragile House majority — already decimated in the November elections — will temporarily shrink by a couple more seats next month. 

Democrats will easily refill those deep-blue seats in New Orleans and Cleveland, but they’ll have to wait for special elections to do so. The looming vacancies mean Democrats will likely hold a precarious 220-213 majority, the slimmest in modern history, just as they kick off the 117th Congress and Biden and his Hill allies grapple with twin public health and economic crises.

For Pelosi and her whip team, it means that just four defections could tank any piece of legislation that Democrats bring to the floor. And some party leaders are openly acknowledging the practical complications that their smaller numbers may have on their legislative designs — and urging Biden’s team to keep that math in mind as the president-elect fills out the remainder of his Cabinet. 

“I’m certainly concerned by the slimming of the majority,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday on a press call. “I have indicated to the administration very early on that I wanted them to be very careful in terms of the members that they appointed from the Congress given the closeness of our majority.”

For her part, Pelosi is brushing off concerns about her diminished majority, saying she supports her members aiding the incoming Democratic administration. Her spokesman said reports that Pelosi had warned the Biden transition team not to poach more of her House members were

“The Speaker wants the full contribution of House Democrats to the Biden-Harris mandate and to the future represented in the administration,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement.

Fudge, who will lead Biden’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), noted this week that both her seat and Richmond’s are in safe Democratic districts, easily filled by new members of the party. But she also conceded that the imminent vacancies, however temporary, could make it more difficult for Democratic leaders in the meantime. 

“Certainly I’m in a safe district, [and] whoever would come here would be a part of this team, as well. So that gives me some comfort,” she told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “But I just have to hope that we can hold together long enough to make sure that something like that would happen if I should leave.”

Biden turned to Richmond, one of his national campaign co-chairs, to lead his White House Office of Public Engagement, a post that will put the former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) chairman in the West Wing and hand him a broad portfolio. Fudge, another former CBC chair, had sought to lead the Agriculture Department, but reports surfaced this week that Biden will nominate the former Ohio mayor as his HUD secretary instead.  

Democrats expected to gain seats in the Nov. 3 elections, which would have made defections to the Biden administration easier to handle. Instead, Republican unseated at least 13 House Democratic incumbents and gained a net of at least 10 seats.

The razor-thin margin means Biden is unlikely to turn to any other allies from the lower chamber for his Cabinet or administration, a disappointment to younger lawmakers looking to make their mark in a new Democratic administration.

Indigenous and progressive groups have pushed Biden to tap Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to lead the Interior Department, for instance, which would make her the first Native American Cabinet secretary in history. 

Others who’ve been floated or expressed interest in administration posts include Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.).

“One practical implication of the narrow majority is we’ve got a lot of talented folks that I think we’d all like to see in a Biden administration,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). “[But] I don’t think we can afford to lose too many bodies, even for a short term until you have a special election.” 

Two extremely close House races have yet to be called, though both are leaning toward the GOP column. In Iowa’s 2nd District, Democrat Rita Hart is contesting state-certified results showing that Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks beat Hart by just six votes. Hart is filing a petition asking the House to intervene. And in New York’s 22nd District, Republican Claudia Tenney is leading Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi by just 12 votes.

Whichever way those races go, Democrats will need to stick together or risk empowering House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the Republicans, who were surprisingly successful this Congress enticing first-term Democrats to support procedural gambits — known as motions to recommit — designed to kill the underlying legislation.

With that in mind, Democratic leaders are eyeing a rules change that could limit the Republicans’ powers to offer such motions in the next Congress. 

“We think it’s a delay action, a spurious action, and we’re looking at it,” Hoyer said, adding that no final decisions on modifications have yet been made. 

Democrats’ first test will be the Jan. 3 floor vote to formally elect the Speaker. Fifteen Democrats did not back Pelosi for Speaker two years ago. With the slimmest of majorities this time, Pelosi can afford just a handful of defections; Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) has already said she won’t vote for Pelosi. 

Fudge and Richmond are not expected to leave Congress before the Speaker vote or the Electoral College vote in the House on Jan. 6, aides said. And Fudge won’t resign from Congress until she’s confirmed by the Senate. 

The good news for Democrats is that seven of the top nine bills passed through the House over the last two years — measures touching on a range of issues, from immigration and gun reform to gay rights and climate change — passed with unanimous Democratic support. Two others saw just two Democratic defectors. Of those four “no” votes, three were cast by lawmakers who lost reelection and won’t be returning to Capitol Hill in January. 

Democratic leaders predict that internal harmony will only become stronger next year, given the awareness of rank-and-file members that they’ll have a thinner cushion to absorb defections. 

“Many of our bills … we passed unanimously, without losing any Democratic votes, and in others we lost just a few,” Hoyer said, referring to the current Congress. “But I think members will be focused on how close the majority is.”

Republicans, who were deeply fractured when they last held the majority, said they’ve now seen what can happen when they put their internal divisions aside and stay united. McCarthy said Republicans will maintain that unity as they look to make life complicated for Pelosi and win back the House in the 2022 midterm elections.

Trump “was able to keep us together, planting the seed and growing it, and now we’ve got the foundation or the root of it. And it’s only going to grow bigger,” McCarthy said in an interview. “We’ve watched the benefits of staying together. By staying together, we won seats; by staying together, we expanded this party, getting conservatives from across the nation from Miami to New York to California.

“I mean look at California. We won our most seats in California, the home of the Speaker but also the home state of myself.” 

CORRECTION: Brindisi’s lead over Tenney in New York stood at just 12 votes when this story was published. An earlier story included incorrect information.

Tags 2020 election Andy Levin Cedric Richmond claudia tenney Deb Haaland Elissa Slotkin House majority Jared Huffman Jimmy Gomez Joe Biden Karen Bass Kevin McCarthy Marcia Fudge Nancy Pelosi Ruben Gallego speaker vote Steny Hoyer

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