Nancy Pelosi’s freshmen critics go quiet as major speaker vote looms

Posted at 3:43 PM, Nov 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-30 20:17:11-05

Elissa Slotkin was unambiguous as she campaigned for a House seat: Nancy Pelosi would not win her over.

“I have made very clear, publicly that I would not support Nancy Pelosi as our next speaker,” she said in late October.

But now as an incoming freshman lawmaker after winning a hard-fought race in Michigan, Slotkin declined to answer five separate times whether she indeed opposed Pelosi during a secret ballot this week in the House Democratic Caucus and also planned to vote against her on the floor in January.

“I’m not talking,” she told CNN Wednesday when asked if she voted for Pelosi behind closed doors just hours before.

During the sixth exchange Friday, Slotkin confirmed she opposed Pelosi in the caucus but didn’t say she would maintain that position on the floor.

“I never want to be disrespectful to anyone who served, especially a woman who has broken glass ceilings, but you have to hear what people in your district are saying,” Slotkin said. “And I got a very loud and clear signal from people across the aisle that they wanted new leadership.”

A Slotkin spokesperson declined to clarify whether she’d also vote against Pelosi in January.

Indeed, a number of new Democrats who talked tough about Pelosi are being far more cautious about whether they’ll support her during the critical vote in January. It speaks to the realities of Washington: Fulfilling campaign promises are difficult, especially when it comes to intensely personal leadership contests and the potential of angering a political leader with the power to elevate freshmen — or quash their ambitions.

House Democratic sources tell CNN that some of the anti-Pelosi Democrats are considering voting “present” on the floor of the House, a strategic move that could help Pelosi and give the Democrats cover back home. Because House rules say that a speaker is only elected when a majority of members vote for a specific candidate by name, voting “present” would lower the threshold below 218 votes for Pelosi to be elected speaker — while also allowing the Democrats to claim they stuck to their campaign promise by not supporting Pelosi.

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a leader of the anti-Pelosi movement, said Friday he was worried about how difficult of a vote this could be for the incoming freshmen.

“That’s my concern — the freshmen,” Ryan said. “They made promises to their constituents. That’s how this all started.”

The new members’ positions come at a delicate time for Pelosi, who needs to flip 16-18 incoming and current Democrats who opposed her in this week’s caucus vote to ensure she wins the speaker’s race before the full House. Some Democrats want Pelosi to clearly lay out her timeline for leaving the speakership, but she shut the door to that prospect on Friday. And there are other key Democrats holding their cards close to their vests, despite their campaign trail rhetoric.

For instance, Rep.-elect Haley Stevens of Michigan said in April that Pelosi “doesn’t have my support as speaker.”

Now, she won’t say.

“We have to be supporting our auto industry, you know, that’s consuming my time,” Stevens told CNN.

Others have been similarly vague.

Shortly after helping Democrats complete a sweep of California’s Orange County, Rep.-elect Gil Cisneros signed a letter with 16 other Democrats committing to support new leadership on the floor and in the caucus.

“In the caucus, I did what I always say: It’s time for new leadership, no voices — I voted (on) that,” Cisneros said Wednesday night after the caucus vote.

Asked if he’d vote against Pelosi on the floor, Cisneros said: “We’ll see.”

Similarly, New Jersey Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill said bluntly on the campaign trail: “I won’t be supporting Nancy Pelosi for leadership.”

On Wednesday, Sherrill put out a statement saying she opposed Pelosi in the caucus vote but was vague about her plans for her floor vote on Pelosi, other than saying she didn’t plan to support her.

Asked about her floor vote, Sherrill told CNN: “I think we still have about a month to get to that point and I think we’ll see what comes up in the next month and then make our decisions.”

Sherrill added she wanted to see “movement” on infrastructure and a comprehensive health care plan, but added: “Certainly I feel that at the end of the day I’ve made a commitment to my district to support new leadership and not to support Leader Pelosi but I won’t be doing that.”

Other freshmen Democrats — like Jason Crow of Colorado — also declined to say how they’d vote on the floor despite announcing their opposition in the caucus, where Pelosi was nominated by House Democrats as their choice for speaker on a 203-32 vote, with three abstaining and one absent member.

“Well, I put out a statement yesterday and I stand by that statement — and there’s been no change since yesterday’s statement,” Crow said Thursday. The statement said he “stood by my pledge” and “did not support” Pelosi in the caucus.

There may be good reason for their squishiness. Slotkin circulated a letter, signed by incoming freshmen, asking for new members to be given plum committee assignments — something usually reserved for more senior members. Pelosi has the power to dole those assignments out.

“It just was meant to send a really clear signal from a large group of freshmen what are the things that are important to us,” Slotkin said about the letter. “It was something that was requested by the leader, and so it’s just a way for us to talk about what is important to us as a class.”

Already, some Democrats who previously said they would vote against Pelosi have flip-flopped after being given assurances and favors from Pelosi — like Brian Higgins, a Democrat from New York. He predicted that more Democratic critics of Pelosi would join him and flip.

“Life is about leverage,” Higgins said.

But some freshmen who campaigned against Pelosi say they don’t want to flip on the commitment they made to voters to oppose her as speaker — including Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Jared Golden of Maine and Ben McAdams of Utah — all of whom told CNN they would vote against Pelosi on the floor.

“I made a promise to the people of my district a long time ago that I wouldn’t support her for speaker and I fulfilled that promise today,” Cunningham said Wednesday after the caucus vote, promising to vote against her on the floor. “So my position has never changed, and I never wavered.”

Rose said Friday he made two promises to the voters in his Staten Island district.

“One, I would be a firm ‘no’ on Nancy Pelosi,” Rose said. “And No. 2, I’d take my wife on a honeymoon. You’re out of your damn mind if you think I’m not going to honor those promises.”

Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger of Virginia promised after the election to oppose Pelosi in the caucus and on the floor. Asked this week if she still planned to oppose Pelosi, Spanberger said: “I’ve been very clear on my position.”

Some of the Pelosi critics have been eager to hear her plans for succession, something that Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat helping lead the charge against her, have begun to discuss privately with the Democratic leader, sources say. In a recent conversation, Perlmutter came away believing that she would step away from the speakership at the end of the next Congress — though she wouldn’t say so explicitly during that exchange, according to a source briefed on the conversation.

Asked Friday if there was a way to resolve the request for a timeline for her departure and her resistance to making herself a lame duck, Pelosi demurred.

“Between saying when I’m going to retire or not? I don’t think so,” Pelosi told reporters.

Pelosi bluntly added: “I don’t think, by the way, that they should be putting timelines on a woman speaker.”

As she’s moved to lock down the votes, Pelosi has been eager to promote her new freshmen, standing alongside them at a news conference Friday about a new ethics bill they plan to move on immediately in the new Congress, while also allowing an incoming freshman Democrat, Katie Hill, to deliver the party’s weekly address.

Gathered alongside new Democrats at a photo opportunity Friday, Pelosi said with a smile: “Let the transition begin.”

This story has been updated.