Not Voting For Pelosi Versus Voting Against Pelosi

[ Posted Wednesday, November 21st, 2018 – 16:52 UTC ]

That headline represents a distinction with a difference, as it could determine the next speaker of the House of Representatives. Is not voting for Nancy Pelosi for the speaker's chair the political equivalent of voting against Nancy Pelosi? Because, politics aside, there is an enormous difference between the two in terms of the rules of the House.

From the website of the House Clerk's office, here is a succinct summary of the process that will take place next January (emphasis has been added, for the crucial two sentences):

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states, "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers."

Although the Constitution does not require the Speaker to be a Member of the House, all Speakers have been Members.

When a Congress convenes for the first time, each major party conference or caucus nominates a candidate for Speaker. Members customarily elect the Speaker by roll call vote. A Member usually votes for the candidate from his or her own party conference or caucus but can vote for anyone, whether that person has been nominated or not.

To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast -- which may be less than a majority of the full House because of vacancies, absentee Members, or Members who vote "present." If no candidate receives the majority of votes, the roll call is repeated until a majority is reached and the Speaker is elected.

In other words, any member who shows up to vote has essentially four choices (five, if you count "walking out of the chamber and refusing to cast any vote," but that's covered by one of the four, really):

  • Choice 1: Vote for your party's nominee.
  • Choice 2: Vote for the other party's nominee.
  • Choice 3: Vote for someone else who has not been officially nominated.
  • Choice 4: Vote "present" instead of voting for any candidate.

Walking out and not voting is the same as that last choice, in terms of how the votes will be counted.

Now, in less-hypothetical terms, come next January the new House Democrats will have a choice to make. Nancy Pelosi is going to win the Democratic Party's nomination for speaker, in a Democratic caucus vote. So far, nobody has even formally challenged her for this nomination, and even if they do Pelosi will still easily win a majority vote of just the House Democrats. So consider that part a done deal.

Also a done deal (because they have already voted) is the Republican Party's nominee: Kevin McCarthy. He knows he's really going to become the House Minority Leader, but he's the candidate the Republicans will be voting for in the speaker election, too.

So, in January, incoming Democratic House members will have the following choices: Vote for Pelosi, vote for McCarthy, vote for some unnamed and unnominated candidate, or vote "present."

Now, a number of these incoming House members (most of them freshmen, but not all; and most of them centrists to the right of Pelosi, but again, not all of them) have made pledges not to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Some of these promises were quite explicit, and made in campaign ads. Some were just as specific, but uttered in interviews or candidate debates. Some are more vague, as the candidate continually ducked the question in some way. But all of them are now politically problematic both for them and for the Democratic Party.

Which brings us back to our original question. What is now politically necessary for all these incoming House members who have made such pledges?

Pelosi is no fool, of course. She's diligently working behind the scenes to convince these members that she's not the fire-breathing dragon lady the Republicans have made her out to be. She's already convinced one member not to make a speakership bid, and today news broke that she had convinced one member who had actually signed the letter (with 15 others) against Pelosi to now vote for her. That's what she does -- she's the ultimate wheeler and dealer. That's why so many people want her to be speaker again, in fact.

But Pelosi knows that a freshman member beginning their tenure by explicitly breaking a solid campaign promise isn't very good politics. So what she is likely doing with these folks is trying to talk them into voting "present." Doing so would make good on the promise to "not vote for Pelosi," after all. Abstaining is not voting for Pelosi.

Because what other choice do these people really have? Are they really going to vote for Kevin McCarthy? Is their first act in Congress going to be a complete betrayal of their party? Why didn't they run as a Republican in the first place if they're going to elevate a Republican to the speaker's chair, after all?

They could vote for some third person, of course, but that begs the question of who? So far, nobody has been willing to put themselves forward as a Democratic alternative to Pelosi. And you can't beat something with nothing, can you? If no Democrat tosses his or her hat in the ring by January, this won't be a viable option. Even if someone does, it isn't really going to be a viable option because they're not going to get very many votes in the full House.

The incoming House will have at least 233 Democrats. There are three races left uncalled, and the Democrat leads in one of them, so this will likely rise to 234 Democrats in the new House. Pelosi can afford to lose 16 of them -- if they vote for McCarthy or for a third person. Whether they back the Republican or not, the vote count will still wind up with at least 218 votes cast for Pelosi, which is a majority of the 435 seats in the House.

If, however, the rebels number more than 16, then things get more complicated. If there were at least 17 anti-Pelosi votes and they all backed McCarthy, he would become speaker. If they backed a third person, then the House would just vote over and over again until someone won (this has happened before, but not in almost a century). It'd be kind of like the way they choose a new Pope -- the voting would go on until exhaustion took over and someone emerged as the winner. Do the rebels really hate Pelosi so much that they'd cause such a ruckus? That remains to be seen, of course, as does the total number of the rebel alliance.

But if the rebels could be convinced that merely voting "present" actually fulfilled their pledge not to vote for Pelosi, then the math gets a lot more friendly for her. Because in that case, she could lose a lot more votes and still win. If the Republicans have 201 members (if Democrats pick up that last district and have 234), then Pelosi can lose 32 of them and still win. The final vote tally would be 202 for Pelosi, 201 for McCarthy, and 32 abstentions (who don't count in the total used to figure what "a majority" means).

This is a graceful way out for all concerned. The anti-Pelosi House members can absolutely fulfill their promise not to vote for her, so they don't have to start their careers by breaking a campaign promise. After the vote in the Democratic caucus, it's going to be obvious that Pelosi enjoys the support of the overwhelming number of Democratic House members, and if nobody is brave enough to even challenge Pelosi directly, then there really will be nobody else to vote for. Voting to elevate McCarthy would be so destructive to the Democratic Party as to be unthinkable, really.

And all Pelosi has to do, at this point, is to convince her opposition of these basic facts. "You swore you wouldn't vote for me? OK, fine. Then don't vote for me. But for Pete's sake, don't vote for McCarthy -- instead, why not just vote 'present'?" That's the argument she needs to successfully make right now. Because that is likely going to be how this plays out in January. The people who ran on not voting for Pelosi's second speakership won't have to. But the majority of the Democrats in the House do support her, so she should still be able to easily win the election for speaker. Voting "present" preserves the political honor of all concerned, while not saddling the nation with two more years of another Republican House. That sounds like a win-win solution for all concerned. Well, for all Democrats concerned, at least.


Program Note: Happy Thanksgiving to all, and we'll see you back here on Monday!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


27 Comments on “Not Voting For Pelosi Versus Voting Against Pelosi”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    Thanks CW. And Happy Thanksgiving to you.

  2. [2] 
    Mopshell wrote:

    Given the current situation in the US - the amount of corruption in congress, cabinet, the White House and SCOTUS, and the information war launched by Russia and China against America in order to destabilize the country - it is critical that Democrats put forward their best candidate. That candidate is Nancy Pelosi. No-one else has her experience, management skills or political savvy.

    Before indulging in pet policy contests, there is a republic to save. That's a life-and-death battle that takes priority over every other concern.

    There's not much point in arguing about "big money" in politics or single-payer versus a multi-payer universal health program if you fail to keep your right to vote in a fair election. The plutocracy will be deciding for you - and it won't be anything you want.

  3. [3] 
    Mopshell wrote:

    Don Harris

    Your boorish incapacity to understand the basics of elections places you at Trump-level stupidity. And that's my last comment on the subject because I'm too old to bother with fools.

  4. [4] 
    Mopshell wrote:

    CW - the current US House numbers stand at

    Democrats: 134 seats - republicans: 198 seats

    with 3 seats to be decided, according to the wonks at Five-Thirty-Eight. The unresolved seats are: NY-22, NY-27 plus CA-21 which they say was called too early and may also end up in the D column.

    From their website:

    In California, it’s not unusual for close races to still be uncalled even several days after the election. That’s because most people in California vote by mail, and mail ballots only have to be postmarked by Election Day; they can arrive at elections offices as late as three days later and still be counted. For that reason, we think the California 21st District is far from over, even though the Associated Press and ABC have both already projected a Republican win there. GOP Rep. David Valadao has less than a 1-point lead, but the votes that have been released in recent days have favored Democrat T.J. Cox, and the counties that have yet to report the most votes appear to lean Democratic as well.

    I have been tracking the progress of all Dem contenders for republican seats since before the primaries. You can find that spreadsheet here:

  5. [5] 
    John M wrote:

    [5] Mopshell

    I might also point out that the "Blue Wave" continues. A DEMOCRAT was finally declared the winner by less than 700 votes in the formerly Republican suburban House district around Salt Lake City in deeply Red Utah! Former Democratic Mayor of Salt Lake City Ben McAdams won against Black Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, who had been seen as a rising star in the party when she was first elected in 2014. Trumpism really is failing in all the diverse urban and suburban areas.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    John [6] Mia Love will still be on Fox News. Count on it.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i wonder how much rep. love appreciates donald's comments about her campaign.

  8. [8] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    It would make a lot of sense for Pelosi to mentor a group of potential successors, not only for current political reasons but to prepare for the future.

  9. [9] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-Your column is an admirably concise summary of the political game about to be played.

    Questions: What criteria define the order of the role call? Are the ordering criteria well defined by House Rules? Alphabetical would be logical, but hey this is politics, and rules can shift. My Google search has not resolved this.

    Early voters get some cover, but being last is potentially very powerful. The Whips must be all over these late voting Reps.

    A belated Happy Coldest and Windy-est Ever Thanksgiving to All. I have just thawed out enough to use the keyboard.

  10. [10] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Here's a very interesting article about conservativism in the age of Trump. I'd be interested to know how CW, California native, feels about it:

    How California conservatives became the intellectual engine of Trumpism

  11. [11] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    [16] This is the first 'full-on' Black Friday/Vendredi Noir Canucks have embraced wholeheartedly. Obviously, being an American practice, I thought it was some kind of ingrained vulgarity associated with its penchant for unthinking racism. Turns out I was partly right. A friend explained to me that it comes from people being marked, in black pen, as 'absent' the day after Thankswhatsit. The vulgarity comes from the ultra-right wing heathens that have perverted it, and still megaphone it, to their adherents as national slave selling day. No surprise there!

    I resisted participation in the event previously because I'm not a fan of unbridled consumerism. I was brought up believing there's no such thing as 'give-away-sale', if something was on sale, chances were good it was either not popular the first time on the shelf or it was antiquated. Then along came a third option...There I was, squinting at my iPhone to see a message from Best Buy (don't ask me why I get mail from best Buy, I've only ever been into the store once, and that was to ask directions), in the message was a 'preview' of the now usurped 'Black Friday' event. One thing leapt off page 3 of 17..." $300 gift card for iPhone upgrade *with two year contract". Given that our family all have iPhone products in a shared plan, and that we were all overdue an upgrade, we bided our two days, and went in and cashed out. The reason this is, for us, a win win, is we were resigned to a two year plan, regardless, so it's no hardship to be tethered to a phone plan...the three brown-bills were a nothing more than a signing bonus.

    Happy Thankswhatsit, folks.


  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    wow, that article really does make a ton of sense. the national republican views under trump seemed to make absolutely no sense anywhere but california (or perhaps 1920's germany), but in the context of culturally liberal nocal and demographically non-white socal it all fits together. of course the older white conservative men are scared to death of becoming irrelevant, because in california they already are.


  13. [13] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    JTC 18--

    People who go in for competitive first citations of words and phrases reckon it began with the traffic cops. (Sorry, I don't know if the link will be live or not.)

  14. [14] 
    neilm wrote:

    @B [17]: Thanks for posting - interesting article.

    The article misses an interesting aspect of California - that while the coast is deep blue, the central valley is deep red. The nihilism on the right is deeply depressing. The Republicans paid so little attention to my constituency that the elected a holocaust denier in the primary and the state party had to backtrack furiously after they found out (

    It isn't a democracy when you have a mandated two way election and one of the candidates is a complete loon.

    I'm very happy with my congressman, and he is center-left rather than left of center, however the fact that Fitzgerald could get to the run off ballot reeks of a total disregard of conservative ideals within the Republican Party.

    Counter that with the fact that the new leader of the Republican minority is Californian Kevin McCarthy, and you can see that the Sturm und Drang crowd are elbowing their way to the front to support Trump.

    Trumpism has taken over the Republican Party. Trumpism needs to be defeated to save America.

  15. [15] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Neil [21]: The nihilism on the right is deeply depressing.

    Yeah, isn't it? Punk was nihilist, Southpark is nihilist. But the faux-Republicans have taken it to a whole new level. They want it to be literally existential.

    Counter that with the fact that the new leader of the Republican minority is Californian Kevin McCarthy

    Handy, since Rupert Murdock now runs Faux News from his estate in Bel-Air, and is planning new facilities for the channel in L.A., on land he acquired in the sell-off of 20th Century Fox.

    And his newest star is Tucker Carlson, who hails from San Francisco. I'm just sayin', the plot thickens. heh.

    Trumpism has taken over the Republican Party. Trumpism needs to be defeated to save America.

  16. [16] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    I meant to express general agreement of that last statement too. Like Mahar, I worry that unless we beat him at the polls soundly in 2020, he'll raise such a fuss about unsubstantiated 'voter fraud' that it'll be hard to actually get him to vacate the office.

    We might have to impeach him just to get rid of his fat ass, but unless a groundswell of Republican indignation rises up in the Senate, that's off the table, and that ain't happenin'.

  17. [17] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    nypoet22[19]: in the context of culturally liberal nocal and demographically non-white socal it all fits together.

    I know. Ironic too, since their brand obviously plays better in Milwaukee than it does in Monterrey.

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I wish you would stop referring to your fellow commenters' ideas as 'stupid'.

    That just demeans this place.

    It would be better to just ignore the ideas in comments you don't like if you can't engage in an enlightening debate about them.

    You are right about the necessity of picking the best candidate for the job - and that goes double for 2020 democratic presidential candidate.

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Actually, Mopshell, I was being too careful.

    You should stop calling your fellow commenters stupid. It reflects poorly on you.

  20. [20] 
    TheStig wrote:


    "The nihilism on the right is deeply depressing."

    A commentator who goes by the YouTube handle Three Arrows is doing some outstanding work combating the neo-fascists aka alt-right. He is German, knows his history, has nose for bullshit and can frame an airtight logical argument.

    Here's a short intro sample (his videos tend to run long)

    YouTube isn't all cat videos! ;)

  21. [21] 
    neilm wrote:

    TS [27] - thanks for the recommendation - I've watched a couple of Three Arrows videos after your recommendation - very compelling.

    Did you watch the Jordan Peterson one? Peterson has always given me a "half baked" vibe, and Three Arrow's video on him ( pins this down - as soon as Peterson gets off his academic expertise, his "facts" get very self serving - more to bolster his self image as the "Personal Guru to the Young Males" than about accuracy and reality.

  22. [22] 
    neilm wrote:

    TS [27] - thanks for the recommendation - I've watched a couple of Three Arrows videos after your recommendation - very compelling.

    Did you watch the Jordan Peterson one? Peterson has always given me a "half baked" vibe, and Three Arrow's video on him ( pins this down - as soon as Peterson gets off his academic expertise, his "facts" get very self serving - more to bolster his self image as the "Personal Guru to the Young Males" than about accuracy and reality.

  23. [23] 
    TheStig wrote:


    Peterson's videos are like the late night bullshit rants I had to endure in a freshman dorm. The guy ought to read some competently written history - starting with:

    Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy D. Snyder - which covers a lot of the same ground Three Arrows does in the video you posted.

    Another historian who demolishes Peterson's NAZI LITE mental framework is Adam Tooze in his book The Wages of Destruction which covers NAZI economics.

    Snyder is not an easy or fast read, but in fairness, the ground he covers is vast and requires a lot of revisits unless you have an exceptional memory. I just discovered Snyder and I went to the same high school - but about a generation apart.

  24. [24] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    if you get a chance, take a look at milton mayer's work on the nazis. it really gets inside the heads of the people on the ground, and what really strikes you is the similarity between their responses to government actions and the responses of americans to some of our own government's actions, such as the intentional separation of immigrant families. obviously we haven't yet descended into the depths of genocide, but it's amazing how easily regular or even supposedly "enlightened" people can end up going along with awful stuff just because it's out of their immediate line of vision.


  25. [25] 
    Kick wrote:


    Actually, Mopshell, I was being too careful.

    Actually, Elizabeth, you weren't being all that careful because you once again were so seemingly "offended" about word usage that you felt the need to repeat the word you're whining about multiple times thereafter... thus once again making it a hard sell that you actually find its usage all that "demeaning" to "this place" as you claim.

    Additionally, Mopshell didn't call Don Harris's ideas "stupid" or refer to Don Harris as "stupid," as you incorrectly claim multiple times. Paraphrasing and not quoting, what she said was that Don's understanding of the basics of election concepts was similar to Trump's. Don unequivocally demonstrates this Trump-level stupidity on a regular basis, and that's likely why she referred to him as a fool, not unlike we have each done... including yourself... at some point or other over the course of several years.

    You should stop calling your fellow commenters stupid. It reflects poorly on you.

    She didn't call him stupid, she called him a fool. If Don Harris wasn't so butthurt by Mopshell's single comment, he likely wouldn't have followed it up with multiple comments regarding same.

    It would be better to just ignore the ideas in comments you don't like if you can't engage in an enlightening debate about them.

    If you actually practiced the above sentiment that you continue to spew unabated, you'd have simply ignored Mopshell's single comment versus following it up with your multiple comments regarding same wherein you've assigned yourself the role of board monitor.

    Your incessant interest in word usage and board monitoring doesn't actually constitute the "enlightening" and "muscular debate" you keep claiming you desire while proving over and over that you're actually not interested in. Just saying. :)

  26. [26] 
    Kick wrote:

    Don, you're not just a "fool," you're a damn fool. The Trump-level stupidity you demonstrate on a regular basis is ample proof of my opinion. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not alone in my opinion.

    Anybody who doesn't agree with my opinion of Don Harris's pathetic grasp of basic election concepts as practiced herein in the 50 states and multiple districts of America can suck it. :)

  27. [27] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    oh come on, was that really necessary?

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