When the House overwhelmingly rejected his attempt to impose new accountability measures on the Obama administrations Afghanistan policy earlier this month, leading liberal Rep. Jim McGovern took some solace in winning the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The Massachusetts Democrat noted in a statement that his amendment to the war spending package earned the support of 60 percent of House Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi, who by tradition rarely votes on the House floor.
Indeed, when Pelosi stepped out to back the amendment, it was only the 33rd time this year that the top House Democrat had swiped her voting card. Out of about 1,400 votes so far this Congress, Pelosi has participated in just 81.
The numbers underline a frequently overlooked fact about the Speaker: Even as she has consolidated power in her office and emerged as her partys most forceful advocate of far-reaching change, she has exercised some restraint on the floor.
The tack is apparently a nod to tradition. As presiding officer of the chamber, the Speaker is expected, for the most part, to abstain from voting.
But Pelosi herself has given varying explanations for it. Two years ago, she told Politico simply that a Speaker doesnt vote. Asked at a roundtable with reporters in December how she would come down on a resolution to force a withdrawal from Afghanistan, she laughingly said she doesnt vote unless its a tie.
Its just that usually Im so busy that every now and then, Ill see a suspension thats, you know, motherhood, apple pie, children and everything, and Ill say, I wanted to vote on that, but Im so busy that I didnt even get a chance to, she said.
Pelosi, who took the gavel in 2007, occasionally has found the time to register approval for those measures. In March, she joined 374 of her colleagues backing a resolution congratulating the New Orleans Saints on their Super Bowl win (only Illinois Republican Rep. Timothy Johnson opposed it). A month later, she joined a unanimous tribute to Polish plane crash victims.
And the California Democrat has made it a point to be counted on the signature items of her partys agenda. That has included votes for the climate change package, health care reform, the Wall Street regulatory overhaul, the repeal of the militarys dont ask, dont tell policy, extensions of unemployment benefits and a tightening of campaign finance disclosure rules.
Democratic aides said the calculation is simple, if not always precise: The Speaker votes on long-standing personal priorities, major party initiatives and, occasionally, when she needs to.
But despite Pelosis joking suggestion that she only intervenes to break a tie, she has shown she prefers to avoid casting the deciding vote. In late June, as her team rallied to muster a majority for the financial reform conference report, the Speaker waited for the measure to gather 218 votes before she weighed in, casting the 220th vote for the package. It passed with 237 votes.