'Her toughest test yet': Nancy Pelosi reelected speaker with narrow vote in what may be her last term
WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won the gavel again Sunday as the House elected her to guide members through the start of a post-Trump Washington, marking the beginning of what is expected to be the last term of the trailblazer’s historic career at the U.S. Capitol.
"It is my great honor to preside over this sacred ritual of renewal as we gather under the dome of this temple of democracy to begin the 117th Congress," Pelosi said after being reelected and handed the gavel. "I thank my Democratic colleagues in the Congress for the confidence you have placed in me by electing me speaker, and will endeavor to meet the moment with courage, unity and grace."
The full chamber started voting on the speaker around noon, a process that took several hours due to COVID-19 and social distancing efforts. While Pelosi was widely expected to win the speakership again, two problems clouded the vote: Democratic defections and complications due to COVID-19.
Democratic losses in November left the party with a 222-211 majority, with one race still undecided and one vacancy to be filled after Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, R-La., died last week after battling COVID-19. A majority of members present was required, meaning Pelosi needed nearly every member of the new razor-thin majority to back her — a feat she accomplished even with five defections in her party. Democrats on the House floor broke out in applause after Pelosi secured a majority of votes required to hand her the speakership.
The predicament offers a preview of the challenges sure to loom over her the next two years as she works to unite competing factions in the party behind President-elect Joe Biden.
"I think this is going to be her toughest test yet," said Michael Hardaway, a former spokesman for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and House Democrats, who now heads a political intelligence startup called Hardaway Wire. "You're going to have the progressives versus the moderates on nearly every bill. It's going to be tough for her to get anything done, but here's the thing: If anyone can do this, it's Nancy Pelosi."
Pelosi works around acknowledging last term
While most on Capitol Hill expect this to be Pelosi's last term as House speaker – a mantle she first took in 2007 when she became the first woman to lead the House – the California Democrat has carefully danced around the topic and left some guessing.
She appeared to acknowledge the end of her tenure leading House Democrats, which she's done since 2003, when asked by reporters about it last month, but Pelosi left herself some wiggle room. She acknowledged a deal she made in 2018 with Democrats that this would be her last term to pave the way for a younger batch of leaders. She and her top lieutenants have held the top slots in the House for more than a decade.
"I don’t want to undermine any leverage I may have, but I made the statement," she said last month, referring to the deal.
Many say Pelosi is right to be concerned that a lame-duck term could weaken her ability to leverage the power she holds.
"She is one of the smartest operators Democrats have ever had and she knows the moment she announces her departure, she gives up her leverage," Hardaway said. "All the negotiations she has within the caucus and with Republicans, she’d be operating at a disadvantage. She knows she’d be crippling herself."
After delivering the Affordable Care Act, playing a key role in recovery efforts after the 2008 financial crisis, negotiating the largest-ever emergency relief packages to counter the coronavirus and leading the chamber when it impeached President Donald Trump, Pelosi is marking the end of her career by leaving it in the hands of a historically diverse House of Representatives as her party takes control of the White House.
"She has delivered," Hardaway said. "She has done a masterful job and this is the perfect time where she is able to ride off in the sunset."
Agenda, challenges over next two years
Pelosi has largely been a key face of the resistance to Trump, a powerful figure who worked to dismantle his agenda and frequently drew his ire. She will return to the speakership in a different role, a key negotiator working to help Biden pass his legislative agenda.
One of her political strengths has been managing the various egos and agendas of a diverse caucus, keeping hundreds of Democrats united. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who serves as her right hand, said that was particularly on display in 2019 when the House lodged articles of impeachment against Trump. In an interview, Hoyer praised Pelosi’s leadership and noted there was no strong-arming members, despite calls for months from some in the caucus to move forward with impeachment.
"This past Congress was one of her best displays of leadership and consensus building," Hoyer said. "The way she handled the impeachment was brilliant. We didn’t lobby a single member. We didn’t act prematurely (despite) calls for the year prior to that."
But the slimmed-down majority, the thinnest in decades, will make her job a lot harder.
The House lost about a dozen seats in November, and Biden announced that another two members of the caucus, who serve in safe Democratic districts, will leave to work in the White House after he is sworn in later this month. The potential of only a handful of seats giving Democrats the majority will mean Pelosi will have to work overtime to keep her caucus united if there’s any chance of passing Biden’s legislative priorities. That dynamic carried over to the vote on her speakership. In 2019, when Democrats elected the California Democrat to again lead them, 15 caucus members voted against her. Several of those members lost reelection bids, but the tight margin meant Pelosi would not be able to lose so many of her members this round.
Five Democrats, all second-term lawmakers who represent key swing districts, broke ranks and either voted against Pelosi or as "present."
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who did not vote for Pelosi in 2019, voted for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., who also did not vote for Pelosi previously, cast his vote for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is widely expected to take the speakership after Pelosi's departure.
Three other Democrats voted “present”: Reps. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
Despite the defections, Pelosi was able to muster a narrow victory with 216 votes, compared with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., scoring 209 votes with no defections.
As the gavel went down and Pelosi was named speaker for a fourth term, House Democrats rose to their feet and applauded the California Democrat. McCarthy later presided over the chamber as he officially handed the wooden gavel to Pelosi, telling the California Democrat and fellow members of the body that "a House distracted cannot govern" and urged her to remember all voices need to be heard and listened to as a new Congress begins.
Pelosi waved the gavel in the air after McCarthy presented it to her and Democrats cheered in the chamber.
In her speech, Pelosi reflected on the last several years, the challenge COVID-19 has posed and the House's priorities in a Biden administration.
"Now is certainly a time for our nation to heal," Pelosi said on the new Congress. "Our most urgent priority will continue to be defeating the coronavirus and defeat it we will."
Progressives, over the years, have been unafraid to defy Pelosi, denying her votes on measures they decried as not going far enough. And the rise of "The Squad," led by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, could pose a bigger problem during this Congress as the freshmen lawmakers become more-seasoned sophomores. All four members of The Squad backed Pelosi on the speaker vote.
Hardaway noted the group already had a strong voice and following but now have a better understanding of how to "leverage their influence." He noted they not only have a better understanding of the legislative process, they also have added new progressive voices to their ranks after November’s election.
And thanks to the thinned margins between parties, moderates will be crucial in negotiating compromises, regardless of the results of a pair of runoff races in Georgia on Tuesday that will determine which political party controls the Senate.
"The challenges are going to be multifaceted," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The margins are very, very narrow. That’s potentially very problematic."
Manley explained one key asset the Biden administration planned to have was control of the House and the ability to quickly pass legislation. While the House will still be controlled by Democrats, the smaller margins and intraparty disputes are likely to slow Biden’s legislative agenda.
“She’s going to have to spend a lot more time getting buy-in from her caucus, which will slow things down,” he said of Pelosi. “The whole crux of the Biden administration was to easily and quickly move bills through the House and massage them in the Senate if they want to get anything done.”
Despite the tight margins, Pelosi has crafted a clear set of priorities over the next two years – a plan that closely aligns with Biden’s agenda.
At the top of the list is passing measures that would curb dark money in politics and expand voting access. She also aims to tackle overhauling the nation’s immigration system, requiring background checks for gun purchases and taking up an infrastructure bill that could help economic recovery efforts in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Contributing: Ledyard King and Nicholas Wu