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Withdrawn for now: House Democratic proposal to raise threshold for speakership vote

Posted at 5:51 PM, Sep 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-26 20:10:22-04

House Democrats are facing an internal dispute over how to elect their nominee for speaker if they win the majority this fall, as a new proposal to dramatically change the rules has ignited a debate within the caucus.

Democrats had their first discussion Wednesday over an idea to change caucus rules in a way that would make it significantly harder for anyone, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to win the nomination on their secret ballot this fall.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, who presented the idea Wednesday to the caucus, agreed to withdraw the proposal for now, though he is likely to bring it back up after the midterms when incoming freshmen will be on the Hill. Perlmutter first proposed it last week in a letter, along with Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York and nine other House Democrats, some of them well-known opponents of Pelosi.

Multiple members in the room said there was a consensus from both supporters and opponents of the proposal that now was not the time to vote on a rules change and more time was needed for discussions.

“We’re all united moving forward (in saying) ‘Let’s win and then have the family fight after,'” said Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged Pelosi for minority leader in 2016 and is considering another challenge this year. Ryan is also an early supporter of the proposed rule change.

The pitch

Traditionally, the Democratic caucus requires a simple majority vote for the nominee on their secret ballot. But some Democrats want to raise the threshold from a majority of the caucus to 218 votes. That would essentially require — depending on if Democrats win the House and by how much — near unanimous caucus support.

The goal behind it is to eliminate any uncertainty heading to the full House vote in January that the Democratic nominee will get to 218 — the already-existing threshold for the floor vote (or whatever number equates a majority at the time).

With dozens of new Democratic candidates vowing to not back Pelosi for speaker, it’s in question whether she could get to 218 on the floor.

The rule change would not only be a tall order for Pelosi but for any Democrat who wants the speaker’s gavel. If Pelosi ultimately decides not to run — though she has said many times she will — there’s no clear next-in-line successor who the caucus is ready to coalesce around.

In the meeting Wednesday, members debated the idea for close to a half hour.

According to members in the room, Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida opposed the proposal, saying it would empower a small number of members to hold the vote hostage in the event Democrats only win a slim majority of 219 or 220. She also cautioned the Democrats could become like Republicans in the sense that the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives, have been successful in thwarting previous speaker races and key legislative votes.

Agreeing, Pelosi called it a “blackballing thing,” according to one person in the room. “Any one person can hold this up.” The minority leader said she could live with any scenario but argued now was not the time to talk about a change in rules.

“She didn’t seem like she was inclined (to support it) at this time, let’s put it that way,” quipped Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, who was an early supporter of the proposal.

Those opposing the idea largely make the case that the caucus should focus solely on winning back the House for now.

“I think that this is a distraction, because it cannot be discussed without getting into the personalities of who’s going to run for this and who’s going to run for that,” Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey told CNN.

Pascrell, who has previously called for new leadership and is close with the members who proposed the idea, said the caucus should address this after November 6. “That’s when the debate occurs,” he said. “Not now.”

Signs of openness

Still, some members are intrigued, both privately and publicly.

“It’s very interesting. It’s fascinating,” said Rep. Juan Vargas of California. “I think we’re going to have to debate it some more, but I’m still open to it.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House and someone who’s considered a potential candidate for speaker if Pelosi decides not to run, consistently declines to weigh in on speakership-related questions from reporters, saying he’s focused on the midterms instead. But this week, he expressed openness to the proposal.

“I think it’s an interesting idea. I think members want to make sure that we can elect a speaker and elect a speaker that has broad support, and that’s what their objective is,” he said Tuesday. “I think that objective is a good objective.”

However, Hoyer added, a number as high as 218 may be too much to ask for. “I don’t know that that’s realistic in the sense that, if you have three or four candidates, it may be tough to get to that number.”

Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said a compromise may be in order. “Something to make it clear that we don’t have our nominee going to the floor with a small marginal victory (in the caucus) but with something more substantial,” he said. “In other words, something that’s doable, but maybe not 218.”

Pushing back on that idea, Rice, the congresswoman who led the letter with Perlmutter, argued it defeats the purpose of the proposal. “There’s no reason to do that,” she said. “What we’re trying to avoid is a spat on the floor of the House that shows us in any other way other than completely united. That’s the goal.”

To be determined…

Procedurally, Perlmutter agreed to withdraw the proposal, but multiple members said they expect the discussion will come back after the midterms, essentially punting further debate for at least another six weeks.

It’s unclear yet whether the postponement kills the momentum for the idea. One Democratic leadership aide predicted many members will want to get the leadership races over and done with so they can focus on getting their committee assignments. “So all this rebel rabble is going to get washed away with a win,” the aide said.

Also in the meeting, the caucus decided to change the date of their leadership elections, so that they’re no sooner than November 28. It was originally set for the week of December 5, which would give more time for leadership candidates to campaign and make their case. But since incoming freshmen would only be on the Hill during the week before Thanksgiving and the week after, the caucus decided to move the vote up.

The change in date could help Pelosi, as it gives potential candidates less time to organize and campaign among the caucus.

Pelosi advocates say if Democrats win big in November, she’ll be walking into speakership discussions with a large victory on her hands and a strong argument to keep her in place as their leader.

Ryan, the congressman considering a challenge, said the other side to that argument will be: “Yeah, a lot of these people won by saying they weren’t going to vote for … her.”

“So how do you figure that out?” he continued. “That’s what the caucus is going to decide.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify Nancy Pelosi’s title. She is House minority leader.