Why 10 House Democrats want to raise threshold for speaker vote

Posted at 2:24 PM, Sep 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-20 16:24:51-04

A small group of House Democrats wants to raise the threshold for their party’s nominee for House speaker, sending a clear message to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that the nominee should have the vast majority of support from the caucus before the final floor vote in January.

It’s an effort, first reported by The Atlantic, that’s so far supported by a tiny fraction of the caucus but will be discussed at the House Democrats meeting next week and could possibly come up for a vote.

On Wednesday, the office of the Democratic caucus received a petition with 10 signatures on it, calling for a change in rules so that the nominee would have to get a whopping 218 votes in the initial caucus vote, rather than a simple majority per usual. Democrats now only number 193 in the House, but if they take the majority they will have at least 218.

This idea is a major leap that would require a near-unanimous vote in the caucus election, which is slated for the first week of December (Pelosi, for example, won minority leader with 134 votes two years ago in the caucus). The proposal is a drastic moving of the goal posts, multiple aides say, and would be an unlikely turn of events if the caucus actually got behind the proposal.

“I’m inclined to think it won’t pass, especially if it’s branded as ‘anti-Pelosi.’ If they manage to convince folks that it’s about a ‘united caucus,’ then maybe,” said one Democratic aide. “I still think Pelosi has the votes to kill the proposal. It’s really about what members think the caucus is.”

The petition is a message sent to Democratic leadership — by some already well-known opponents of Pelosi — that they want a nominee who can get to that high level of support and avoid uncertainty for the final vote in the full House in January, which actually does require 218 votes among the whole chamber.

In other words, if Pelosi wins a simple majority, according to current rules, of her own caucus to be the nominee in December, it’s still in question whether she could get to 218 in January. That would require people who voted against her in the caucus to ultimately support her on the floor — which could be a risky move for candidates who are now running on their vow to oppose her, though it’s still possible they could split their vote if convinced to do so.

These 10 members want to change the rules so they go into the floor vote already knowing the nominee has support from 218. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who signed the petition and voted against Pelosi in 2016, argues the proposal is “simply good policy” and has “nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi.”

“Instead of making the decision on the House floor, we can come out of caucus knowing who gets the vote — no matter who the Speaker will be,” Fudge said in a statement to CNN. “We choose not to be embarrassed on the floor the way the Republicans were.”

Ashley Verville, a spokeswoman for another signatory, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, said he signed it “to better align the Democratic Caucus rules with that of the House and ensure the Caucus is ready to hit the ground running come January 3, 2019.”

Still, 218 is not a number that anyone else in the caucus could get if the caucus election were held immediately, per multiple aides and members, as there’s no clear next-in-line candidate after Pelosi. Several members are angling for the speakership nomination behind the scenes, if Pelosi were to leave, but the caucus isn’t even close to coalescing behind one person yet.

“You cannot beat somebody with nobody,” said one senior Democratic aide.

The caucus is also counting on a large incoming freshmen class, and an attempt to change the rules next week “would exclude their voices from that conversation,” added the senior Democratic aide.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said Thursday on MSNBC that it would be a “huge mistake” to fight over caucus rules ahead of the midterms. “All our focus ought to be on that, not creating internal conflict within the Caucus,” he said.

Pelosi is widely-known as a solid vote counter, so the expectation among many Democrats is that if she realizes after the midterms she doesn’t have 218 votes, then she’ll step aside and help usher in the next group of leaders.

Pelosi’s office declined to comment to CNN for this story.

The Democratic caucus received the petition Thursday by hand delivery. CNN has confirmed the petition includes signatures from Perlmutter, Fudge, Reps. Robin Kelly, Seth Moulton, Filemon Vela, Bill Foster, Kathleen Rice and Tim Ryan — the latter of whom is openly considering a challenge against Pelosi, like he did in 2016.

According to CNN’s count, there are at least five Democratic incumbents who’ve said they plan to vote against Pelosi, and several more who have called for a new generation of leadership.

However, because the small group got 10 signatures, they met a threshold of five signatures to have it brought up in the next Democratic caucus meeting next week.