As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seeks the support to keep the gavel for another term, her allies are keeping close watch on a potential wild card that could complicate her path next month: COVID-19.
Pelosi is already facing a much slimmer majority in the next Congress, after Democrats were clobbered at the polls in November, meaning she can afford far fewer Democratic defections than the 15 who opposed her two years ago. And lawmakers must be present on the House floor to cast their vote for Speaker, precluding the option for members to vote remotely, as many have done throughout the pandemic.
The combination of factors creates the chance that Democrats could face a dilemma on Jan. 3 in which Pelosi locks up the Democratic support to remain Speaker, but coronavirus concerns — illnesses, quarantines or otherwise — prevent a sufficient number of them from being in the Capitol to log their votes.
A failure of Pelosi to secure support from half the voting members would, at the very least, throw the process into chaos. In the Democrats’ nightmare scenario, the math could tilt so far in the Republicans’ favor that it yields a GOP Speaker.
“Let’s say, just theoretically, we had six or eight people out with Covid and the Republicans have none. They probably could elect [Kevin] McCarthy,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), referring to the House GOP leader.
Lawmakers were reminded of their vulnerability this week, when five more members of the House tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of infected lawmakers to at least 35 since the pandemic hit the U.S. roughly a year ago.
With that in mind, Pelosi’s supporters say it’s an outbreak over the holidays — not Democratic detractors — that poses the single greatest threat to Pelosi’s otherwise-expected Speakership victory next month.
“We’re in a health care crisis, right? No one can get sick. That’s the X-factor here,” said one House Democrat, a Pelosi ally, who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “We need everyone to be healthy. … That’s the big fear.”
Some of those fears are being assuaged with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. To protect the continuity of government, House and Senate lawmakers now have the opportunity to receive a vaccination in the Capitol from the attending physician. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were among the first to get their shots on Friday.
“As the vaccine is being distributed, we must all continue mask wearing, social distancing & other science-based steps to save lives & crush the virus,” Pelosi tweeted alongside a photo of her getting vaccinated.
Today, with confidence in science & at the direction of the Office of the Attending Physician, I received the COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccine is being distributed, we must all continue mask wearing, social distancing & other science-based steps to save lives & crush the virus. pic.twitter.com/tijVCSnJd7— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 18, 2020
But many House lawmakers told The Hill they’ve been able to stay healthy all year by sheltering in place and avoiding the Capitol completely. Emergency rules, pushed through by Democrats in May, have allowed lawmakers to vote remotely, or by proxy. That’s meant elderly members, those battling cancer and other illnesses, or those caring for small children have not needed to fly back to Washington each week for votes. On Dec. 18, for example, nearly 90 Democrats voted by proxy.
But the proxy-voting rule expires with the new Congress, requiring lawmakers to be in the Capitol in person if they want to participate in the Jan. 3 floor vote for Speaker. The House will adopt a new rules package governing the 117th Congress just after the Speaker vote.
That makes physical attendance tantamount to Pelosi’s success, since Democrats are on track to have a razor-thin majority of 222 seats, and at least three moderate members of the caucus are already on record saying they don’t intend to vote for Pelosi on Jan. 3: Reps. Conor Lamb (Pa.), Jared Golden (Maine) and Elissa Slotkin (Mich.).
Complicating the math, several Democrats have ongoing health concerns unrelated to the coronavirus that have kept them from the Capitol for much of the year. A handful of COVID-19 cases on top of that, some fear, could sink Pelosi’s prospects.
“COVID is a wild card,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “If we have sick members who cannot come back, and we only have a four-vote majority, it throws our entire advent of the 117th Congress in peril — a smooth advent.”
Johnson warned that a chaotic Speaker vote on Jan. 3 would highlight internal party divisions at exactly the wrong time — just two days before a pair of special Senate elections in his home state, which will decide who controls the upper chamber for the next two years.
“The implications that it could have on the race[s] down in Georgia, it is unsettling,” he said.
To avoid such a scenario, a number of Pelosi’s allies are informally whipping the Speaker’s critics, in hopes that they’ll back Pelosi for the sake of party unity — or at least vote “present,” which would not count against the majority. As part of that pitch, some lawmakers are warning the detractors that they’re threatening the health of sick colleagues, by forcing them to return to the Capitol to counteract “no” votes.
“That ought to be considered by these members who are exercising a political prerogative — that by doing so they’re putting somebody who’s fighting off a really difficult illness in a position of having to take risk to offset their political prerogatives,” said a second Democratic lawmaker.
“It’s frustrating because it’s turned into something bigger than it should be,” the lawmaker added. “It was like a quaint anecdote that people could say they voted for Colin Powell or John Lewis.
“This is no longer a chance to have an expression of one’s views; this is a consequential vote.”
Some Pelosi allies, however, see a silver lining in the pandemic as it relates to her success in keeping the gavel on Jan. 3. In short: they say it could provide her critics — those who have promised voters they’ll oppose her — with a convenient excuse not to be on the floor that day.
“COVID could be a helpful way to address some strategic absences,” said a third House Democrat, also speaking anonymously to discuss strategy. “If you’ve got a member, let’s say, who has boxed themself in in this way, and they have a sick or elderly relative in the household, or a new baby, or something else, being strategically absent is a way to keep their pledge while lowering the denominator to help Pelosi.”
It’s unclear, of course, how many lawmakers might be forced to quarantine during the first week of next year. But health experts are warning of a surge in cases over the long December holidays, when cold weather is forcing more and more people indoors. And some Democrats are conceding that it’s only inevitable that members of Congress will be affected just like everyone else.
“Obviously, the concern is that with 435 people going all over the country, it’s hard to imagine that not one of us will have the virus on Jan. 3,” said a fourth House Democrat.
Pelosi, the nation’s first female Speaker, is no stranger to fending off challenges to her leadership over the years. Most recently, she beat back a considerable revolt in 2018, when she squeaked to victory with 220 votes. And despite the thin margins, there’s an overwhelming sense among Democrats that she’ll find a way to do it again next month — coronavirus or none.
“There’s the usual suspects who make it part of their brand to vote against her. But I think there’s an awareness — and there’s certainly a message coming from within the caucus — that this may not be a year for the usual branding,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). “We’re a fractious bunch, but Pelosi’s very, very good at what she does. So she’s going to earn her money.”