A small but growing number of Democrats have abandoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the GOP’s second-favorite bogeyman in contested districts. Depending on how you count, about five have even said they oppose her continued Speakership if the Democrats retain the House.
That may sound like no big deal — who cares if some of the most conservative Democrats in the House won’t vote for Pelosi, so long as a majority of her caucus still supports her, right? Wrong.
The Speaker is a unique office-holder on Capitol Hill, elected by a plurality of the full House of Representatives. Even if Democrats can retain the House, their margin will likely be slimmer than it is now. And that could touch off a scenario in which there’s a majority of Democrats in Congress, but a minority of members of Congress willing to vote for Pelosi as Speaker.
“We’re confident that we’ll retain the majority and I’m confident that Nancy Pelosi will be Speaker of the House,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told reporters this morning at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
That’s the stated view of leading Democrats straight down the line. But the math isn’t necessarily on their side.
So far, Reps. Bobby Bright (D-AL), Gene Taylor (D-MS), Jason Altmire (D-PA), Jim Marshall (D-GA), and Mike McIntyre (D-NC) have said no to Speaker Pelosi in the 112th Congress. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has intimated the same, though he represents a much more liberal sliver of the caucus than the others.
So what happens if Democrats have a tiny majority — 219, or 220 seats? Presuming that they win re-election, those five (and any others who may join them) would be queenbreakers. If the rest of the caucus votes for Pelosi, and the entire Republican party votes for John Boehner, that handful of Democrats would be in a position to tell Pelosi: step aside, or we’ll vote for a more moderate Democrat and throw the Speakership, against common sense, to Boehner.
This is essentially what happened to Newt Gingrich after the 1998 midterms, when a determined group of Republicans forced him to step aside.
Van Hollen demurred when asked if those Democrats could be swayed to support Pelosi anyhow. “You’ll have to ask them,” he said.
All of this assumes that Democrats do indeed retain their majority — a questionable proposition in and of itself. But if they do, Pelosi’s troubles aren’t necessarily over.
“Nancy Pelosi has an enormous reservoir of good will within the Democratic caucus,” Van Hollen said. “She’s been fighting this fight harder than anybody and she would be the first to tell you that this campaign is about something that’s much bigger than her. It’s obviously about making sure we have a majority in Congress that can move the country forward and work with the President.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.