COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday

Two years ago, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) squeaked to the Speakership by a razor-thin edge in the face of an internal Democratic revolt.

This year’s vote might be even closer, though for vastly different reasons.

While Pelosi, who has led House Democrats for almost two decades, seems to have secured enough support to keep the gavel when the chamber assembles Sunday, the coronavirus pandemic is playing a wild-card role in the process — one that may pose a greater threat to Pelosi’s reign than her small cadre of Democratic detractors.

Not only have several of Pelosi’s supporters recently contracted the virus, making their participation in Sunday’s vote uncertain, but the Democrats’ slender majority — the result of an election mauling in November — has left her with little room for defections, absences or a wrong mix of the two.

Democrats of all stripes say they’re confident that Pelosi will ultimately find a way to win the votes she needs to keep the gavel for another two years. Ask them if it’s a slam dunk, however, and they cite just one hazard: COVID-19.

“I think she’ll win, but I’m just not sure how she gets there,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), summarizing a sentiment common throughout the caucus. “They have to make sure that all the members come. They have to come in person. And some members have illnesses, so it’s going to be a little touchy.”

Indeed, several Democrats have ongoing health concerns unrelated to the coronavirus that have kept them out of Washington for much of the year, and at least two — Reps. Gwen Moore (Wis.) and Rick Larsen (Wash.) — contracted the virus in late December.

The illnesses are significant since the biennial Speaker vote falls at the opening call of the new Congress, before the rules governing the next two years are adopted — and before Democrats can establish a system of proxy voting that would empower sick and vulnerable lawmakers to cast ballots remotely. That means members must vote in person on the chamber floor or not at all.

Pelosi will win, said a senior Democratic lawmaker, “just as long as everyone shows up.”

“That’s the thing. You just want to make sure nobody gets sick,” said the lawmaker, a Pelosi ally who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “There’s a slim margin.”

Just how slim depends on who appears for Sunday’s vote.

Democrats are poised to control 222 seats in the next Congress, versus 211 for Republicans, while two seats remain vacant.

To secure the Speaker’s gavel, Pelosi has to do more than simply win more votes than anyone else; she has to win a majority of the House, defined as lawmakers in the chamber voting “for a person by name.” If all 433 lawmakers vote on Sunday — and vote for an individual — Pelosi would need 217 votes to win the gavel, leaving room to lose five Democrats in the process.

That cushion is much smaller than the one she enjoyed in 2019 — when she won 220 votes despite opposition from 15 moderate Democrats on the House floor — but hardly a deal breaker. Pelosi has since won over some of those detractors, including veteran Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), while at least three others lost their reelections: Reps. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah).

Still, several of those critics are expected to oppose her again this year, including Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine), Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

“I don’t know how she squares that circle,” said a second Democratic lawmaker and Pelosi ally. “Some of them are really committed.”

There are plenty of variables, however, likely to alter Sunday’s math — and with it Pelosi’s success in keeping the gavel.

Any members voting “present,” for instance, are not counted against the final tally — it’s as if they were absent — thereby lowering the threshold needed to meet the simple-majority standard. The “present” votes can play to Pelosi’s advantage: For every two Democrats voting “present,” Pelosi would need one less affirmative vote to win the overall majority and secure the gavel. That creates the space for moderate Democrats in tough battleground districts to log their objections to the liberal Speaker while helping to keep her in place.

At least one Democrat who voted “present” in the Speaker vote in 2019, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), has told Politico she intends to do so again.

But there are limits to that strategy. If too many Democrats vote that way or simply fail to show up on Sunday, then Republicans will effectively assume the voting majority — and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the GOP leader, would become the next Speaker.

The more unsettled variable, though, is the coronavirus and other illnesses expected to keep some lawmakers away from Washington this week. Aside from Moore and Larsen, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a Pelosi supporter being treated for pancreatic cancer, is another questionable attendee in the chamber on Sunday. And Rep.-elect Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) is also quarantining after recently contracting COVID-19.

Compounding the uncertainty, Congress’s holiday recess was slashed by weeks as the parties fought over an enormous spending and coronavirus relief package — which finally cleared the House on Dec. 22 — while President Trump’s veto of a defense authorization bill forced lawmakers back to Washington once again after Christmas.

The combination of year-end legislative chores has prevented most lawmakers from quarantining in the days leading up to Sunday’s Speaker vote, which the Capitol physician had advised last month when coronavirus cases were surging around the country.

“The COVID issue is making us a little nervous,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a Pelosi supporter.

Highlighting the risks facing lawmakers as they navigate their public lives, one of the two House vacancies was created in tragic fashion after Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, a Louisiana Republican, died on Tuesday of complications from COVID-19. He was 41 years old.

Pelosi, for her part, has said both publicly and privately that she has the vote wrapped up.

“I’m fine,” she told reporters in the Capitol just before Christmas.

But on a caucus call last week, Pelosi reportedly acknowledged that the virus was the most significant pitfall she faces. And her allies have been scrambling to convince their fellow Democrats to back the longtime party leader to prevent a dramatic scene on the chamber floor if health-related absences complicate her path to the gavel.

The debate has sparked some hostility within the caucus, where Pelosi’s allies — noting that the detractors have offered no alternative Democratic Speaker candidate — are lashing out at her critics with warnings that a vote against her is simply a vote for McCarthy.

“What makes these three or four people so entitled that they get to take a vote that no one else can?” asked a third Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), echoing a message from numerous Democrats, noted that Pelosi has faced tough odds before and has always found a way to tap the powers of her office in the service of persuading even some of her most entrenched critics.

“Leadership and others need to work with them to see if there’s some wiggle room there to work it out,” Thompson said last week. “I’m sure between now and Sunday, there’ll be an awful lot of that.”

Other Democrats pointed to Pelosi’s performance in confronting Trump, arguing that she’s earned her right to the gavel for another two years, particularly since she’s vowed they’ll be her last at the top of the party.

“She’s had a very successful two years, I think, by all standards. She’s stood up well against President Trump, so that’s made it easy to support her,” said Vela.

“Also, the country is in such turmoil,” he added. “There’s something in your gut that tells you you don’t want to be part of the turmoil.”

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alcee Hastings Bennie Thompson Donald Trump Elissa Slotkin Filemon Vela Gwen Moore House speaker vote Jim Cooper Joe Cunningham Kevin McCarthy Kurt Schrader Max Rose Nancy Pelosi Rick Larsen speaker vote Speakership Stephen Lynch
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