WASHINGTON — Wondering if Republicans will push Nancy Pelosi over the top in her drive to become House speaker next year? Despite supportive words from President Donald Trump, it’s implausible.
Twice since Democrats won House control in last month’s elections, Trump has said the California Democrat deserves to regain the post she held from 2007 to early 2011 as the first female speaker. He’s offered to help her win GOP votes, if needed, when the new House elects its speaker Jan. 3. One Republican lawmaker says he’d consider helping her.
Still, it’s a far-fetched scenario that she’s publicly rejected.
It’s rare for lawmakers to vote for the other party’s speaker nominees, though there’s an uncanny connection between the last time it happened and one of Pelosi’s leading foes. Even a seemingly harmless vote of “present” by a Republican would help Pelosi because she’d need fewer votes to win a majority, leaving anyone who did that vulnerable to a future GOP primary election challenge.
WHY WOULD REPUBLICANS EVEN CONSIDER HELPING PELOSI?
It’s largely about 2020. The GOP has spent tens of millions on campaign ads over the years, political consultants say, portraying Pelosi as a dangerous radical from San Francisco, her liberal hometown, and linking Democratic candidates to her. While the GOP lost the House last month anyway despite featuring Pelosi in ads, many Republicans would love to use her again in the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns.
THEN WHY NOT ASSIST HER?
For a Republican, helping Pelosi — even by voting “present” or missing next month’s roll call — would be tantamount to begging a GOP primary challenger to oust them in 2020. Pelosi is that loathed by conservative voters.
“It would be an absolute career killer,” said Jon McHenry, a GOP consultant.
The vote for speaker is the first House vote in each new Congress, when lawmakers demonstrate their party loyalty. For most, helping the other side is unthinkable.
“It would be like Democrats voting for Newt Gingrich,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, became speaker in 1995 after using combative, obstructionist tactics to lead Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years. He was despised by Democrats.
The last time a lawmaker voted for the other major party’s speaker nominee was 2001. Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, an eccentric dissident who’d long clashed with party leaders, backed Ohio Republican Dennis Hastert for speaker.
Traficant was expelled from the House in 2002 following his conviction on corruption charges. Imprisoned, he ran for re-election that year as an independent but lost to a former aide, Tim Ryan. Ryan is now an Ohio Democratic congressman and organizer of the effort to dump Pelosi, saying it’s time for fresh leadership.
“There’s no correlation there,” Ryan said of his opposition to Pelosi and his past connection to Traficant, who died in 2014. Ryan said while opposed to Pelosi, he would not vote for a Republican.
A crossover vote occurred at least one other time, according to the House historian’s office. Rep. Thomas Schall, R-Minn., voted for Rep. Champ Clark, D-Mo., to be speaker in 1917, saying he wanted to show U.S. unity on the eve of World War I.
PELOSI’S PROBLEM …
… is arithmetic, not popularity among Democrats. An overwhelming majority want her to win the gavel, while a disgruntled handful wants to get rid of her.
When the chamber votes, she’ll need a majority of all House members — 218, assuming everyone shows up and Republicans unanimously oppose her. Lawmakers who abstain, vote “present” or are absent don’t count.
Democrats will have a 234-198 majority next year, with three races still uncalled by The Associated Press. As of now, Pelosi could lose up to 16 Democrats and still become speaker if Republicans vote “no” and everyone votes for a candidate.
Sixteen Democrats signed a letter saying it’s time to change their leadership, and several others promised during their campaigns to oppose her. In a secret ballot for the party’s speaker nominee, 203 Democrats voted for her, though three were delegates from territories and can’t vote next month for speaker.
Her party’s leader since 2003, Pelosi, 78, has won over some opponents and has nearly a month to make the additional deals she’ll need to get the votes.
WILL SHE WIN?
Pelosi has said she’ll be elected with Democrats alone. She rejected the idea of winning with Republican support, saying, “Oh, please, no, never, never, never.”
Ryan and Pelosi’s other opponents say they doubt she’d seek Republican backing, citing her long career as a stalwart Democrat. Yet some foes suggest it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
“Who knows?” Ryan said. “At this point she doesn’t have enough Democratic votes.”
Asked if Pelosi might seek a deal for GOP votes if she had no other alternative, spokesman Drew Hammill said, “Your premise is faulty. Nancy Pelosi will have the votes.”
Prevailing with GOP backing would put Pelosi at risk of alienating liberal voters and heighten their anger against Democrats who opposed her, fueling 2020 primary challenges. It could also entice Republicans to try a seldom-used procedural vote to remove her from the speakership.
A WILLING REPUBLICAN?
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said he’d consider helping Pelosi if they could negotiate changes in House rules to help the minority party get amendments and bills considered. The chamber’s majority has long had control over the agenda.
Reed is a leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers. While Pelosi promised changes to get support from the Democrats in that group, Reed said he hasn’t heard from her.
Voting for her would be “toxic” among Republicans, Reed said, adding, “Speaking of this has caused a tremendous amount of heartburn on my side.”
Alan Fram, The Associated Press