By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 11:07 AM
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mathematical grip on political power is getting slippery.
With House Democrats already bracing for steep losses in the midterm elections, at least five of Pelosi's colleagues have announced in the past two weeks that they would not support her remaining as speaker, should Democrats retain the majority. More than a dozen others have told local and national media that they would consider backing a different Democrat.
Pelosi refuses to discuss any outcome next month other than Democrats staying in power and her still wielding the speaker's gavel. "Would anybody ever go up to somebody during a game and say, 'What are you going to do if you lose?' We're in a fight. We don't even think about losing. We just have our eye on the ball, which is victory," she said Wednesday in a radio interview on the "Gayle King Show."
The congressional palace intrigue has reached such heights that some insiders wonder whether she would resign from leadership if Democrats lose the majority. That's what the previous speaker, Republican J. Dennis Hastert, did in the wake of the 2006 elections. Then again, Pelosi could move to the minority leader's office, as the legendary Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) did several times in the 1940s and 1950s as House control kept flipping between the parties.
But the trickier question for Democratic candidates is what happens if their party holds on by a very narrow margin, losing dozens of seats but retaining the House majority.
The vote on speaker is the first of each new Congress and, because of the position's constitutional significance, the speaker must be elected by a plurality of the entire House.
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) faced this problem twice, with different results each time. In January 1997, after accepting the ethics committee's admonishment, Gingrich survived a 216 to 205 vote, as nine Republicans voted for someone other than him or the Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt (Mo.).
Nearly two years later, after losses in the midterms, Republicans held just 223 seats and Gingrich only had five votes to spare. A small but decisive band of Republicans vowed to oppose his reelection as speaker, effectively forcing his resignation.
If Democrats hold on to the House majority, the vote for speaker would become the most closely watched speaker's roll call since Gingrich's 1997 cliffhanger. Enough politically endangered Democrats have declared their opposition to her - Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Bobby Bright (Ala.), Jim Marshall (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Gene Taylor (Miss.) - that a very close vote is easy to envision.
What if Democrats lose 37 seats in November, holding just 219 seats, and all four of those Democrats win re-election? Pelosi's hold on power would be perilous. Those four lawmakers will not vote for Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), instead saying they will support a moderate Democrat. But every Republican would presumably be voting for Boehner, so under this scenario, Boehner would get 216 votes, Pelosi 215 votes and another Democrat four votes.
These anti-Pelosi Democrats would either have to go back on their word, knowing they would face the consequences in the 2012 elections, or some compromise would have to be worked out. Or Pelosi could resign, similar to Gingrich in 1998.
Even if Democrats lose just 30 seats, dropping their ranks to 226, the Pelosi-for-speaker vote would remain dicey. That's because Democrats such as Rep. Travis Childers (Miss.) have declined to say how they would vote if reelected and if Pelosi seeks another speaker's term.
"I'd like to see somebody more moderate in that role," Childers said during a recent debate, one of at least a dozen Democrats similarly wavering.