House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s margin for error is slim on Sunday, when lawmakers return to Washington to officially usher in a new session of Congress and elect their new speaker.
After serving 17 years as Democrats’ leader, Pelosi is running unopposed. But the looming threat of coronavirus paired with the Democrats’ smallest majority in decades means Pelosi and her deputies are carefully counting votes to ensure she can avoid any embarrassment on the House floor.
“She’s very aware. If Nancy can do anything, it is that she knows how to count. She is counting every vote,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia. “She is very aware of the fact that with a slim majority — with some members who voted against her two years ago — there is gonna have to be an effort to persuade them that that was then and this is now. We cannot afford to have uncertainty about the speakership.”
On Monday, Pelosi’s office sent requests to chiefs of staff in Democratic offices across the Hill, inquiring whether their bosses would be physically present for the vote. In order to win the speakership, a member must receive at least 50% of the vote plus one. All members who vote must be in DC in person because the vote for speaker will occur before the House passes its rules package containing the provisions that have allowed Democrats to vote by proxy for months.
Aides estimate Pelosi will have a roughly a 10-vote margin, depending on if an outstanding congressional race in New York is called by Sunday. That means she can afford to lose just a handful of members from across the ideological spectrum. In 2018, there were 15 Democrats who did not vote for her as speaker. Ten of them are returning.
Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin and Maine Rep. Jared Golden have said they do not plan on voting for Pelosi. A handful of other moderate Democrats including Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger and a few progressives — including Reps.-elect Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York — have declined to say how they would vote. One Democratic member — Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin– announced she tested positive for Covid earlier this week and Pelosi’s deputies are also concerned about other members might be absent due to underlying health issues.
But Pelosi’s allies have stressed she’s confident she’ll easily win the vote on the floor Sunday. Pelosi told reporters on Monday, “I’m fine” and members who have spoken to the speaker recently say she is projecting confidence that she will be reelected.
Pelosi told her members on a private call earlier this week that her only enemy in the fight for speaker was Covid, according to multiple sources familiar with it, because it could affect the number of members who could come to Washington and vote. While there is nothing explicitly blocking members from voting while sick, the optics would be another matter entirely.
While Pelosi has a small margin for error, her allies have warned that the speaker has a myriad of tools at her disposal to curry votes, including a massive fundraising operation, committee assignments and legislation she can bring to the floor.
“She is one of the few, clear leaders who can provide cohesion and leadership for the Democratic majority,” Connolly said. “I think she goes into this in a strong position, but clearly cognizant of challenges she faces in terms of numbers and the uncertainty of coronavirus.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.