California Democratic MP Nancy Pelosi was elected to a different term – her fourth – as Speaker of the House of Representatives. One she promised will be her last.
With a vote of 216-209 on Sunday, with three members in attendance and several others either absent or voting for other candidates, Democratic legislature gave Pelosi the hammer again just hours after the historically diverse 117th Congress was sworn in.
80-year-old Pelosi previously made history as the first woman to be elected speaker. On Sunday, she made history again by becoming the oldest American to be elected for the role. Renowned House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, who previously held the honor, was 78 years old when he was elected for his final term.
Pelosi faced no challengers, but given the small majority of her party in the new Congress, she had little margin for error. Although the Democrats expected to expand their majority in the 2020 election, they actually lost ground, holding just 222 seats in the chamber – four more than the 218 needed for a mere majority – with two races still tied are. In total, the GOP took up at least nine seats.
To retain the spokesperson, Pelosi only needed to get a simple majority of the votes in the entire House. However, she was faced with questions about whether she could achieve this majority.
Among other things, several members of the Democratic House – such as Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore – have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks. Moore finally voted on the floor of the house anyway, even though she hadn’t tested negative for Covid-19 since her positive test on December 28th.
The absence of two elected Republican officials due to positive Covid-19 tests – David Valadao from California and Maria Elvira Salazar from Florida – also made math easier for Pelosi.
Still, there were concerns that, like in 2018, Pelosi would face opposition to her offer from within the Democratic Party – and that this time around it might be enough to hurt her chances.
After the 2018 halftime, more than a dozen Democrats turned down another speaker for Pelosi, arguing that their party needed new leadership. Some of those who opposed Pelosi at the time, such as former New York MP Max Rose, lost re-election; others, like Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, stay at home. Before the vote on Sunday, there were still questions about how these lawmakers – as well as members of the first term who had remained silent about their intentions – could vote on Sunday.
Lamb voted for New York MP Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, on Sunday.
But Jeffries himself was confident Pelosi had a chance ahead of Sunday’s vote, telling Fox News: “Nancy Pelosi will be the next speaker for the United States House of Representatives and I look forward to including her name in the nomination.”
And Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly suggested to CNN that concern about Pelosi’s ability to secure a controlling stake was exaggerated, saying, “If Nancy can do something, she knows how to count.”
Ultimately, Pelosi was able to garner enough votes to stay in power. Previously unregistered first term members like New York MP Jamaal Bowman chose to endorse her for a fourth term as spokeswoman.
The 117th Congress, however, is likely to be Pelosi’s last to speak. In 2018, she signed a deal with Democrats who opposed her run – and vowed she would abide by proposed tenure limits on running the House, which means she could only serve four more years.
Pelosi will face new challenges at the 117th Congress
After securing her position as spokesperson, Pelosi will face the early challenge of her majority declining even further, if likely only temporarily.
At least three House Democrats – MPs Cedric Richmond, Marcia Fudge and Deb Haaland – were tapped for jobs in the Biden administration, with their seats remaining vacant. (Richmond, who is slated to serve as director of the Public Engagement Bureau at the White House, does not need to be confirmed for the job, although Fudge and Haaland do.)
All three currently serve in comfortably democratic districts that are likely to remain blue if their current residents leave for a Biden administration. However, filling the seats will take some time, leaving Pelosi temporarily with only 219 democratic votes.
Even if those seats are occupied – assuming they’re likely to be won by Democrats – Pelosi must find a way to rule an occasionally troubled, diverse caucus and pass laws that leave fewer votes than in the last Congress. If it doesn’t win Republican votes, which is unlikely for many Democratic legislative priorities, it can only lose four votes.
And Pelosi will lead a deeply divided caucus – a division that was evident in the days immediately following the election, when moderate members blamed progressives for losses and progressives called for even bolder action on issues such as immigration and education.
The need for almost every vote from both sides of the caucus will allow individual members to force compromises on legislation, a fact recently affirmed by Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus of Congress.
“Whenever you have a very narrow majority, there are many different parts of the caucus power. Progressives will have power, but so will more conservative Democrats. So this has to be a case where we are thoughtful and careful about how and when we weigh things up and work over the caucus as much as possible, ”Jayapal told Newsweek in December.
It’s not all bad news for Pelosi, however. For the first time since she surrendered the speaker’s gavel in January 2011 after a wave of Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, she will have an ally in the White House in President-elect Joe Biden. Should Democrats win two runoff elections in Georgia this week, the Democratic Party could enjoy unified control of the government for the first time since January 2011.
If Democratic Senate nominees Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock win against incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have the casting vote and control over the January 20th Chamber transferred to the Democrats Party and New York Senator Chuck Schumer made majority leader.
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