Pelosi reelected speaker despite narrow majorityJanuary 3, 2021
Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker of the House for the 117th Congress, clinching the gavel for the fourth — and potentially last — time as she prepares to steer the sharply divided chamber through the final turbulent days of the Trump era.
Pelosi won 216 votes to secure the speakership with five Democrats breaking ranks to support someone else or vote present. All Republicans voted for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
“As we are sworn in today, we accept a responsibility as daunting and demanding as any that previous generations of leadership have faced. We begin the new Congress during a time of extraordinary difficulty,” Pelosi said in a speech after accepting the gavel. “Our most urgent priority will continue to be defeating the coronavirus. And defeat it, we will.”
If this is in fact Pelosi’s last term as speaker — as she has signaled — it would cap a remarkable House career spanning more than three decades, including leading the Democratic Caucus for nearly 20 years and becoming the first, and still the only, woman to wield the speaker’s gavel.
Now, Pelosi must lead one of the slimmest House majorities in decades — Democrats hold just 222 seats to Republicans’ 211, with two vacancies — through the final days of President Donald Trump’s tenure before preparing to usher in a new era under President-elect Joe Biden.
“We have the most capable speaker in modern times,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said in an interview amid the multihour vote. “She is clearly the most capable and competent speaker — to bring a large group of people with diverse backgrounds and political ideology together, and function as one.”
In some ways, this was the most challenging speaker’s bid for Pelosi yet as she had to meticulously lock down every vote, with nearly zero room for error due to razor-thin party margins, rebellious Democrats and the potential for last-minute absences due to the coronavirus.
With Republicans flipping a dozen seats in November, Pelosi could afford only a handful of defectors within her caucus this time, not the 15 Democrats who didn’t back her bid in 2019. Pelosi is the sixth speaker in history to win with fewer than 218 votes.
“We are just an extremely slim amount of votes away from risking the speakership to the Republican Party,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who in the past has been vocal about the need for transition to new leadership but voted for Pelosi on Sunday. "It's bigger than any one of us."
The day also wasn’t without some coronavirus-related drama. In a sign of just how delicate the vote count was, and with a recognition of the surging pandemic, House officials constructed a special plexiglass box in the chamber Sunday so that members who tested negative for the coronavirus but were quarantining after exposure — two Democrats and one Republican — could still cast their vote.
The move sparked outrage and head-scratching among lawmakers and House officials, some of whom openly questioned whether the speaker’s vote mattered more than the safety of lawmakers and staff.
“To build a structure like that, in the dark of night, to only protect the votes that Speaker Pelosi needs to get reelected speaker, is shameful,” said Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee.
The mechanics of the floor vote also looked far different than two years ago, when Pelosi returned to the speaker’s chair for a historic second time after losing the majority in 2010. While each member still stood one by one to cast their vote, only a few dozen lawmakers from each party were supposed to be on the floor at one time.
On the Democratic side, lawmakers mostly sat several seats away from each other, though many Republicans flouted health guidelines and sat shoulder to shoulder in the chamber.
Several members did use their moment in the spotlight to deliver personal accolades to the speaker: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) described Pelosi as "the finest speaker in the history of the United States.” And Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) followed his vote for Pelosi with an “of course.”
But overall, the tone of the day was less celebratory than in 2019, as the public health crisis and other tragedies remained top of mind for members of both parties.
Several members were spotted wearing pins honoring Rep.-elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana, who died Tuesday due to coronavirus complications.
And Pelosi initially missed that her name was called to voice her vote because she had been turned around in her seat talking to Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is mourning the death of his 25-year-old son, announced earlier this week. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) offered Raskin his condolences before voting for McCarthy, which led some in the chamber to clap.
The vote on Sunday caps off an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying blitz over the past several weeks by Pelosi, 80, and her allies to secure full support within the caucus, including from some longtime outspoken critics of the speaker. Senior Democrats were painstakingly managing attendance up until the final hours — even reaching out to offices multiple times to confirm lawmakers would be present.
In the end, Democrats had only one absence — 84-year-old Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who is battling pancreatic cancer. Two Republicans weren’t present to vote — Reps.-elect David Valadao of California and Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida, who both tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days.
Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, who also tested positive for the coronavirus recently, was cleared from quarantine at midnight and traveled to Washington to cast her vote.
Pelosi successfully flipped several of the Democratic defectors who didn’t support her 2019 effort, including Reps. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Kathleen Rice of New York, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Jason Crow of Colorado.
But not every returning Democrat ended up voting for Pelosi, despite stark warnings from senior party members that they should do so.
Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) became the first defection of the day, casting his vote for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). He was followed by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who picked House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries for speaker. Both Golden and Lamb weren’t expected to support Pelosi.
Three other Democrats who didn’t support Pelosi in 2019 — Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey — all voted “present.”
Pelosi’s fourth term as speaker comes two years after a group of Democratic rebels tried to block her path to the gavel, only backing down after she agreed to a four-year term limit atop the House.
But in many ways since then, Pelosi has only consolidated more power, positioning herself as the leading adversary to Trump during a chaotic 116th Congress that started under the longest government shutdown in history, eventually led to the impeachment of the president before being quickly consumed by the coronavirus that effectively shut down the nation for the past nine months.
Pelosi did not face a challenger this time but has been repeatedly questioned about whether this in fact would be her last term.
“What I said then is whether it passes or not, I will abide by those limits that are there,” Pelosi told reporters in November about the deal she cut with Democratic rebels in 2018. “I don’t want to undermine any leverage I may have, but I made the statement.”
With the speaker’s vote over, the House will focus on the final gasps of Trump’s term, including potential chaos on Wednesday when Republicans make one last, doomed attempt to overturn Biden’s victory results as Congress meets to certify the election results.
The effort has zero chance of success but will ensure a long day, possibly bleeding into the next, filled with drama. Republicans spent most of Sunday openly warring with each other over Trump’s attempts to subvert the election.