Nancy Pelosi was narrowly reelected Sunday as speaker, giving her the reins of Democrats’ slender House majority as US President-elect Joe Biden sets a challenging course of producing legislation to tackle the pandemic, revive the economy and address other party priorities.
The California Democrat, who has led her party in the House since 2003 and is the only woman to be speaker, had been widely expected to retain her post. Pelosi received 216 votes to 209 for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who again will be the chamber’s minority leader.
To gain her victory, Pelosi had to overcome some Democratic grumbling about her longevity, a slim 222-211 edge over Republicans after November’s elections and a handful of absences because of the coronavirus. There were two vacancies in the 435-member House, and whatever happens Democrats will have the smallest House majority in two decades
Democrats gave Pelosi a standing ovation as the final tally was annnounced, while the Republican side of the chamber was nearly empty.
The new Congress convened Sunday, just two days after lawmakers ended their contentious previous session and with COVID-19 guidelines requiring testing and face coverings for House members. There was widespread mask-wearing and far fewer lawmakers and guests in the chamber than usual, an unimaginable tableau when the last Congress commenced two years ago, before the pandemic struck.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., formally nominated Pelosi for the job, calling her “a notorious negotiator and a legendary legislator for such a time as this.”
Jeffries, a member of House leadership who’s expected to contend for the speakership whenever Pelosi steps aside, said that as Pelosi prepares to work with Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, “Brighter days are ahead in the United States of America. This is the day of great renewal in the House of Representatives.”
To be reelected, Pelosi needed a majority of votes cast for specific candidates and could afford to lose only a handful of Democratic votes. House rules give her a bit of wiggle room because lawmakers who are absent or who vote “present” are not counted in the total number of those voting.
Sunday’s vote lasted just over two-and-a-half hours, an unusually long time, as lawmakers voted in groups of around 72 each to minimize exposure to the virus.
Pelosi kept Democratic defections to a minimum, winning over colleagues who’d voted against her when she was elected speaker in January 2019 and many progressives who were seen as potential opponents.