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Everything you need to know about House Democrats’ leadership elections

House Democrats are choosing their leadership on Wednesday, but the speaker’s vote is weeks away.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrive to speak to reporters about the GOP tax reform plan on Capitol Hill in 2017. Pelosi is running for House Speaker and Hoyer is running for House Majority Leader in Wednesday’s elections.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi’s first big vote looms today.

House Democrats are meeting privately to select new leaders for the next Congress on Wednesday, including caucus chair, House majority leader, and whip.

But the top position — House speaker — won’t get a final vote Wednesday. The entire House of Representatives (Democrats and Republicans alike) still needs to vote to officially elect the speaker on January 3, their first order of business at the start of the new session. The Democratic caucus vote Wednesday will end with the speaker’s nomination.

All signs point to Pelosi, currently the minority leader in the House, clinching that nomination. After serving as speaker from 2007 to 2011, Pelosi is running unopposed for the job again. She just needs a simple majority of Democrats to be the nominee. In January, she needs 218 votes to win; she can afford to lose 16 votes from her party, which could rise to 17 if California Democrat T.J. Cox wins his extremely tight race against Republican Rep. David Valadao.

Even though the final speaker’s vote won’t happen for weeks, every other position in leadership will be decided on Wednesday. Most of these races are uncontested, but the races for the House Democratic Caucus chair, vice chair, and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee all have multiple candidates running.

Pelosi has spent a lot of time hammering out deals ahead of today to try to ensure a smooth, drama-free vote. But a small yet vocal group of Pelosi opponents could still complicate things at the last minute.

Why does the House speaker role have to be voted on twice?

The House speaker is one of two positions that the Constitution mandates must be elected by the entire chamber (the other position is House clerk — currently held by Karen Haas, who has served as clerk under Republican Speakers Paul Ryan and Dennis Hastert). So while all the other members of Democratic leadership will be chosen on Wednesday, the candidate for speaker will just be nominated.

Technically, there will be two nominees for House speaker; each party will put forth its nominee for the January 3 floor vote. House Republicans, who will be in the minority in 2019, will likely nominate House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The speaker is the very first thing the new House will decide on, and it’s an important vote.

“If they do not elect a speaker, they can’t do anything else,” said Mark Strand, president of the nonprofit Congressional Institute.

There are different vote thresholds Pelosi will have to meet during the caucus elections and the January floor vote in order to become speaker. On Wednesday, she just needs a simple majority to be nominated, and the vote will either be by voice vote or secret ballot. But during the public floor vote, Pelosi needs to hit the magical 218 number in order to be elected.

As Strand noted, there are ways to work around getting 218 votes on the floor. A House speaker can be elected as long as they win a majority of members who are voting on the floor that day.

For instance, if a number of Republicans are absent on January 3, Pelosi’s vote threshold would be lowered. That’s how former House Speaker John Boehner was reelected with 216 votes in 2015 as he faced a wall of conservative opposition from the House Freedom Caucus. A number of Democrats were absent during the 2015 vote because they were at the funeral of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and more couldn’t get to Washington because of bad weather. Only 408 members were present, lowering the threshold of yes votes Boehner needed.

This certainly is an option for Pelosi, who is facing 16 members who have written a letter saying they won’t vote for her (a few more are in opposition but are not on the letter). If Cox wins in California, Democrats will have flipped 40 seats, widening Pelosi’s margin. Still, if the vote is looking close, some have talked about the possibility of Pelosi cutting a deal with McCarthy to have some Republicans be absent. President Donald Trump also tweeted he’d give Pelosi enough Republican votes to get her over the top, though it’s unclear if that was a serious offer.

Pelosi has brushed these scenarios aside and has been adamant she will be elected with Democratic votes.

“I intend to win the speakership with Democratic votes,” she told reporters recently. “I have overwhelming support in my caucus to be speaker of the House.”

Even though Pelosi doesn’t need 218 votes to get the Democratic nomination on Wednesday, it will still be worth watching how close she gets. Her vote total will signal whether she has the votes locked up or needs to keep whipping.

“That’s the key thing to watch: Has she been successful in taking care of it, or does she have work to do,” Strand said. “It’s a secret ballot, so there’s no cost to voting against her if people want to send a signal.”

Who is running for each position in leadership elections

There’s been heavy focus around Pelosi and whether she has enough votes to be speaker, but there are a lot of other leadership positions up for grabs. Here’s who is running Wednesday (you can read about them in more detail here):

House speaker: Nancy Pelosi (CA). Pelosi is the House minority leader and previously served as speaker from 2007 to 2011, the last time Democrats were in the majority.

House majority leader: Steny Hoyer (MD). Hoyer has been the No. 2 House Democrat for years; he is the current House minority whip and used to be majority leader.

House majority whip: Jim Clyburn (SC). Clyburn currently serves as assistant Democratic leader and is also part of the longtime Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn leadership trio.

Assistant Democratic leader: Ben Ray Lujan (NM). Lujan served as the chair of the DCCC during the successful 2018 elections.

Democratic caucus chair: Barbara Lee (CA) vs. Hakeem Jeffries (NY). Lee is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Jeffries is a co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. This race could be tight — Lee and Jeffries are both popular CBC members.

Democratic caucus vice chair: Katherine Clark (MA) vs. Pete Aguilar (CA). Clark worked with the DCCC on candidate recruitment in 2018, while Aguilar is best known for co-writing a bipartisan immigration reform bill to fix DACA.

Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: Cheri Bustos (IL) vs. Denny Heck (WA) vs. Suzan DelBene (WA) vs. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY). Heck and DelBene already have DCCC experience, but Bustos is arguing she should lead to help Democratic candidates in the Midwest win in 2020.

How Pelosi has built up support ahead of the vote

A few weeks ago, Pelosi’s position at the top looked far from assured; a number of moderate House Democrats were organizing to try to block her from the speakership and at least one member, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge was openly mulling a challenge.

Fast-forward to the week of the caucus vote, and Pelosi appears to be in a stronger position. There are still 16 Democrats on a letter saying they’ll oppose Pelosi, but others have dropped off. (Remember, she can lose up to 16 votes in January if she wants to win with just Democratic votes.)

In other words, the Democratic leader has been on a dealmaking blitz, and the results are showing.

Last week, Pelosi cut a deal with Fudge, her potential challenger. Just a few days after publicly mulling a bid, Fudge reversed course to support Pelosi for speaker at the same time that Pelosi announced she would name Fudge the chair of the newly reinstated House Administration Subcommittee on Elections.

A few days later, longtime Pelosi critic Rep. Brian Higgins (NY) took his name off the letter of Pelosi opponents and announced he would vote for her, after she agreed to work on his pet issue: lowering the age Americans can start receiving Medicare to 50. She’s negotiating with nine Democrats on the Problem Solvers Caucus who threatened to withhold their votes unless she agrees to a set of rules changes.

And Rep. Seth Moulton (MA), one of the leaders of the anti-Pelosi group, is now reportedly making overtures to Pelosi, asking her to consider removing Hoyer and Clyburn from her leadership team to get his vote, according to a new report from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.

It’s not yet a lock for Pelosi; she still has to win more people over. But when she walks into the caucus meeting on Wednesday, it will be from a position of strength.

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