How Democrats are ensuring they have House majority when new Congress starts in January

Democrats will cling to a majority in the House of Representatives when the 117th Congress begins Jan. 3.

Or will they?

As we always say in this space, it’s about the math, it’s about the math, it’s about the math.

Let’s be clear. Some pretty wild things would have to happen for Democrats to lack the majority next year. But, because of the pandemic, some bizarre, if not unprecedented, possibilities exist. And Democrats are taking precautions to make sure they don’t get tripped up when the new Congress starts Jan. 3.

On paper, the math works for House Democrats right now. It’s not great, as Democrats lost seats.

We don’t know the complete breakdown between Democrats and Republicans in the House when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.

We just know it’s going to be tight.

Out of 435 seats, Democrats are likely to only hold a maximum of 222 seats. That means the GOP could have 213. It takes 218 yeas to pass anything in the House if all 435 members show up.

So Democrats don’t have a lot of slack.

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But what will the math look like if and when President-elect Biden drafts several House members to serve in his administration? Or how about in six months? What if members resign? Or, if there is trouble with the pandemic?

Fox is told that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has had serious conversations with the Biden camp about the repercussions in the House regarding plucking Democrats to serve in the new administration.

Never challenge the wherewithal of Pelosi to marshal the votes she needs on any given issue. Like Pelosi or not, no one has demonstrated a superior acumen to counting votes in the House of Representatives in decades. Pelosi seemingly always comes up with a way to secure a vote here or there when she faces challenging odds.

But there’s a scenario that Pelosi and Democrats could face in January which she can’t control: COVID-19.

As good as Pelosi is at whipping a roll call vote on the floor, she can’t outmaneuver coronavirus. She can’t control whether members on her side test positive for coronavirus. She can’t control who has to quarantine because of exposure. She can’t control whether a Democrat is healthy enough to come to the floor and vote on opening day to demonstrate Democrats have at least a narrow majority to control the House.

All it takes is for a handful of Democrats to find themselves indisposed when the new Congress begins on Jan. 3 – and the unthinkable could happen on that side of the aisle.

Could Democrats actually find themselves in the minority to start the Congress? They could if the right number of Democrats fail to show up, in person, at noon on the Constitutionally-mandated day to begin the Congress, Jan. 3.

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The concern is great enough among top House Democrats to take great pains to tell their colleagues that showing up, in person, on Jan. 3, is of paramount importance.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass.,  recently penned a missive to fellow House Democrats warning them about the need to report to the chamber to start the 117th Congress on Jan. 3. McGovern implied that the Democratic majority could be at risk.

“Handing control of this chamber over to the Republicans would negate the will of the American people, block the Biden administration’s ambitious agenda, and continue President Trump’s disastrous policies long after he’s gone,” warned McGovern.

The Massachusetts Democrat also warned colleagues that “remote voting,” implemented for the pandemic, ceases at the beginning of the new Congress. The House can re-implement remote voting next year. But that can’t happen right away. Everyone has to show up in the flesh to constitute the new House and approve a rules package for the 117th Congress. House Democrats will undoubtedly include remote voting in their rules plan for next year.

“The physical presence of Members is needed,” implored McGovern. He also noted that “you must be present on the House Floor to be sworn in.”

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The fact that top Democratic leaders are even discussing this speaks volumes. There is a legitimate, operational concern that potential illnesses or quarantines could impact the majority on Jan. 3. If that were the case, would an ill Democrat or someone who tested positive be willing to come to the House just to help Democrats codify their majority on Jan. 3? Would that be appropriate? Would it be ethical?

A House majority has never switched in the middle of the Congress. But 14 members died between the 1930 midterm election and the launch of the 72nd Congress in December, 1931, 13 months later (!). Among those who died was House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, R-Ohio. That switched control of the House between the election and when the new Congress began more than a year later.

But back to present day, there is deeper concern.

Democrats argue they need to be in the majority to reject any challenge to President-elect Biden’s electoral college victory when the House and Senate convene in a joint session of Congress to certify the tally on Jan. 6.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., is ready to contest slates of electors from states where President Trump and others claim there were irregularities – even if a state certified the result.

“If you don’t fight, you’re guaranteed to lose,” said Brooks on Fox. “If we choose to reject them or any one of them, then they do not count toward that candidate’s total in the electoral college.”

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It takes both the House and Senate to vote to dismiss a state’s slate of electoral votes. This is where McGovern argued that Democratic lawmakers must first be present to make sure Democrats in fact have control of the House on Jan, 3. Otherwise, they won’t be able to fend off any challenges to the electoral college results in the House.

“It is essential to the legitimacy of Congress in counting the Electoral College votes on January 6th for Members to be in the House chamber,” wrote McGovern.

McGovern also observed that Democrats must be present to vote in person for speaker on Jan. 3. In fact, the speaker vote is one of the first things the House does in a new Congress. It can’t do anything else until it selects a speaker. The successful candidate wins with an outright majority of the entire House. That’s 218 out of 435 members. Not just the “most votes.” An outright majority of the entire body. So, if enough Democrats aren’t there on Jan. 3 – or, if some Democrats defect from casting their ballot for Pelosi, as has happened before…

Back to McGovern’s missive:

“Our caucus recently nominated Speaker Pelosi by voice (vote). Make no mistake, any vote not for the Speaker on the House floor will be counted against her and for (House Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the QAnon wing of the Republican party,” wrote McGovern.

So this does come down to the numbers. Literally. Who is available to play.

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Don’t forget that the House could be called upon to judge whom to seat in not one but two House races which remain uncalled. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution says that “Each House shall be the Judge of Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.”

Iowa election officials recently certified Republican Rep.-elect Mariannette Miller-Meeks the victor over Democrat Rita Hart – by six votes. That flips a seat from blue to red. Miller-Meeks and Hart were vying to succeed retiring Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat. Hart is now taking her case to the House of Representatives to decide. It is also a jump ball in a contest in upstate New York between Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat, and former Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican. Tenney won the seat in 2016. Brindisi captured it in 2018. Now Tenney is trying to win the seat back.

Based on the Constitution, it’s possible the House could debate and vote to seat members from either Iowa or New York. And, naturally, that would impact the “math” in the House of Representatives and the size of a majority. Especially on opening day.

This brings us to the Denver Broncos.

Two weeks ago, the Broncos hosted the New Orleans Saints. Due to COVID-19, the NFL ruled out all four of the Broncos quarterbacks. Starter Drew Lock,  Brett Rypien, Jeff Driskel and Blake Bortles were all shelved to coronavirus protocols. That forced the Broncos to start practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton at quarterback against the Saints. Hinton completed one pass in nine attempts for 13 yards. He threw two interceptions and recorded a passer rating of zero.

The Saints defeated Denver 31-3.

The Broncos quarterback situation is an instructive tale about what could happen in January if House Democrats lack the proper personnel on the floor.

The Denver Broncos still had to play the game against the Saints, despite lacking a qualified quarterback.

The same situation could await House Democrats on Jan. 3.

They’ll still have to play the game.