WASHINGTON - Nancy Pelosi isn’t speaker of the House just yet, but her path back to the gavel is now firmly in sight.
Pelosi was overwhelmingly nominated to become House speaker in an internal Democratic caucus vote Wednesday. The final tally, 203-32, puts her within range of the 218 threshold needed in January to be elected speaker when the new Congress convenes.
She’s not quite there. Her actual support is at 200, adjusting for delegates who can’t vote in the full House and one supporter who missed the caucus session.
But without a challenger and with several weeks to dole out — or withhold — favors, Pelosi is not too far from returning to the speaker’s office.
“Are there dissenters? Yes,” the California Democrat told reporters as the ballots were being counted. “But I expect to have a powerful vote going forward.”
Pelosi entered the caucus election in an unusual position — running unopposed for the nomination despite the clamor by some Democrats for new leadership. They worry about their re-elections when Pelosi appears as a punchline at President Donald Trump’s rallies and in countless Republican-fueled TV ads against them.
But Pelosi has been deftly picking off opponents — including nine who announced their support Wednesday as voting was under way — a trend she’ll need to accelerate in the weeks ahead.
A deal was reached with the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group whose nine Democratic members were withholding their support as they pushed for rules changes to allow a more open legislative process.
Another group, led by Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, left the leader’s office empty-handed. They asked Pelosi to publicly release her plans to transition out of leadership before the end of the next term in 2020. She declined, they said.
“There has to be some succession plan,” Rice said.
As House Democrats met in private in the Capitol, they faced a simple “yes” or “no” choice on Pelosi for speaker.
Those trying to oust Pelosi say they always knew the internal caucus election would fall in her favor. She only needed a simple majority of Democrats, who have a 233-seat majority with several races still undecided, to win the nomination.
But in January she’ll need closer to 218 votes, half the full 435-seat House, if all Republicans vote against her, as is likely — though she could win with fewer votes if some lawmakers are absent or vote present.
Opponents insist there will be more than enough votes to stop Pelosi at that time. Organizers say only with a floor fight in view will new leaders emerge. They say plenty of Democrats could step up to the job.
“The battle is the floor,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, among those who signed a letter calling for new leadership.
But the strength of Pelosi’s candidacy was shown in the long line of those nominating her, starting with Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, and no fewer than eight colleagues seconding the choice, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights leader, and three newly elected lawmakers.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who is set to chair the Intelligence Committee when Democrats take control next year, choked up with emotion, according an aide in the room granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
“I ask you to support her for this,” Schiff told his colleagues. “Everything we care about is now at risk. Families desperate to obtain health care for their families. Children desperate to be reunited with their families, auto workers being laid off. The gap between rich and poor exploding. The press characterized as the enemy of the people. The independence of our justice system being undermined.”
Pelosi’s ability to stand unopposed Wednesday showed the staying power of her brand of machine politics. She was the first female speaker, from 2007 to 2011, until Republicans took control, and hopes to return to a role few men have reclaimed — most recently, legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn a half-century ago.
She lost fewer votes than she did during a leadership challenge two years ago, and fewer than retiring Republican Speaker Paul Ryan faced in his internal caucus election for the job.
“The reality is there is no alternative,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., who had signed on opposing her but reversed course.
In fact, Democrats voted to return their entire top leadership team, including Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland in the No. 2 spot as majority leader and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina in the No. 3 spot as whip. They were running unopposed.
Down-ballot was where the House Democrats pushed a new generation of leader to the forefront. They elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as caucus chairman, elevating the charismatic 48-year-old from the Congressional Black Caucus. The No. 4 slot as assistant leader went to Ben Ray Lujan, 46, who helped lead Democrats back to the majority as campaign chairman.
Between now and January, those who oppose Pelosi will face internal pressure to reconsider their options. Colleagues will be asking if they really want a stalemate on the House floor as the first act of the new Democratic majority. And Pelosi will work the levers of power by doling out the many committee seat assignments, subcommittee chairmanships and other perks as incentives.
“She’s making a lot of headway,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, an ally. “Has she negotiated and given them some of the things that they want? Yes. But she’s only giving things to people who can deliver.”