Understanding the math Nancy Pelosi faces in the race for House speaker

Does Nancy Pelosi have the votes?That's the question looming over the race to determine who will be t...

Posted: Nov 20, 2018 4:10 PM
Updated: Nov 20, 2018 4:10 PM

Does Nancy Pelosi have the votes?

That's the question looming over the race to determine who will be the next speaker in the new Democrat-led House of Representatives.

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Pelosi and her allies have steadfastly insisted that she has the support to be elected speaker. But a rebellious faction of House Democrats are pressing ahead with their attempt to derail her leadership bid and are also projecting confidence that they will prevail.

House Democrats will hold a vote the week after Thanksgiving to select their nominee for speaker by a majority vote, which Pelosi is expected to easily win.

The more complicated math will come in January when the new session of Congress arrives in Washington and the full House holds a vote on the floor for Speaker. That's when Pelosi will have a higher hurdle to clear.

How Pelosi opponents could pose a threat to getting 218 votes

To be elected speaker, a candidate needs to win a majority of members who vote for a specific person on the House floor. That amounts to 218 votes if no member skips the vote or votes "present."

In the new Congress, Democrats will hold at least 232 seats. But there are still three undecided House races and Democrats could pick up additional seats.

If Democrats end up with a total of 233 seats, for example, Pelosi could afford to lose up to but not more than 15 votes if she has to reach 218 -- an outright majority of the full House of Representatives.

In that scenario, the current opposition to Pelosi could indeed pose a threat.

Sixteen Democrats have so far signed onto a letter indicating that they will oppose Pelosi for in her bid for speaker. One of those Democrats, Ben McAdams of Utah, is in a race where CNN has not yet projected the winner, though McAdams took the lead on Monday night.

In addition to the Democrats who signed the letter, there are at least two other Democrats who are saying they plan to vote against Pelosi on the floor, but did not sign the letter.

Pelosi could win with fewer than 218 votes

Seventeen or eighteen votes is more than Pelosi can afford to lose if she has to reach a 218 majority and Democrats ultimately hold 233 seats in the chamber.

But it's possible for Pelosi to win the gavel with fewer than 218 votes --- and it's not clear yet how hardened the opposition is to her bid for speaker, even among the Democrats who have already come out against her.

Here's how Pelosi can win with fewer than 218 votes: To become speaker, a person needs to receive an absolute majority of all votes cast for a particular individual during the full floor vote. If someone votes "present," that doesn't count as part of the total that determines what constitutes a majority and would instead lower the threshold to reach a majority. If someone is absent or if there is a vacancy that would also lower the majority threshold that Pelosi needs to reach.

For example, if three Democrats vote "present" rather than voting for someone besides Pelosi, that would change the pool of overall votes from 435 (the total number of members in the House of Representatives) to 432 -- assuming that all members of the House participate in the vote. That, in turn, would lower the majority threshold below 218.

There's precedent for this: It happened in 2015 when John Boehner won the title of House speaker with only 216 votes, and with Newt Gingrich, who won in 1997 with 216 votes.

Pelosi's opponents don't have a clear alternative

It's also possible that Pelosi could sway or convince some of the Democrats who have pledged to vote against her to drop their opposition. A lot could change between now and January when the final vote takes place -- and, crucially, there is still no viable alternative to Pelosi since no other Democrat has entered the race to challenger her.

Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio has said she is considering it, but has yet to make a final decision. Notably, her name did not appear on the letter of Democrats vowing to oppose Pelosi in the speakers' race released Monday.

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi, responded to the release of the letter by issuing a statement saying that "Leader Pelosi remains confident in her support among Members and Members-elect." Hammill also noted that 94 percent of the caucus declined to sign the letter.

Could Republicans get Pelosi across the finish line?

Another potential wild card: It's also possible that Republicans could cross party lines to cast a vote for Pelosi.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from New York, has said he would be open to voting for Pelosi under certain conditions -- specifically if she were to endorse a bipartisan package of rules changes that would make it easier to push legislation and weaken the power of the leadership to dictate the agenda on the House floor.

President Donald Trump fueled speculation that Republicans might vote for Pelosi over the weekend, tweeting "I can get Nancy Pelosi as many votes as she wants in order for her to be Speaker of the House. She deserves this victory, she has earned it - but there are those in her party who are trying to take it away. She will win!" Trump tagged Reed in the tweet.

For her part, Pelosi has insisted that she will win the speakership on the strength of Democratic votes alone.

"Oh please, no, never," she said during a press conference last week when asked about the possibility that Republicans could vote for her.

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