WASHINGTON – Nancy Pelosi was narrowly reelected Sunday as speaker, giving her the reins of Democrats’ slender House majority as she and President-elect Joe Biden set a challenging course of producing legislation to tackle the pandemic, revive the economy and address other party priorities.
“We accept a responsibility as daunting and demanding as any that previous generations of leadership have faced,” the California Democrat told the chamber as she accepted a fresh two-year term in her post, perhaps her last. Citing the 350,000 Americans who've died from COVID-19 and the millions who've lost jobs and livelihoods, she won a standing ovation when she said, “Our most urgent priority will continue to be defeating the coronavirus. And defeat it, we will.”
Yet even before House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., ceremonially handed her the speaker's gavel — a normally genial moment — he provided a stark reminder of the partisan divide coloring Congress.
McCarthy accused Pelosi of over the past two years leading “the least productive Congress in nearly 50 years” and said there was a clear message in last November's elections, when Republicans gained seats by defeating a dozen Democratic incumbents. “It was a wake-up call," he said. “The question I ask of this majority: were you listening?”
Those are assertions that Democrats strongly dispute, saying it's Republicans, especially in the GOP-led Senate, who've blocked progress on pandemic aid and other issues.
Pelosi, who has led her party in the House since 2003 and is the only woman to be speaker, received 216 votes to 209 for McCarthy, who again will be the chamber’s minority leader.
It was the first vote of the new Congress, which convened Sunday with COVID-19 guidelines requiring testing and face coverings for lawmakers. There was widespread mask-wearing and far fewer legislators and guests in the chamber than usual, an unimaginable tableau when the last Congress commenced two years ago, before the pandemic struck.
Pelosi's election came 17 days before Biden is inaugurated. Yet rather than a fresh start for him and Pelosi, there are issues and undercurrents that will carry over from President Donald Trump’s tempestuous administration.
Though Congress enacted — and Trump finally signed — a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package late last month, Biden and many Democrats say they consider that measure a down payment. They say more aid is needed to bolster efforts to vaccinate the public, curb the virus and restore jobs and businesses lost to the pandemic.
Biden’s priorities also include efforts on health care and the environment.
Guiding such legislation through the House will be a challenge for Pelosi because her party’s narrow majority means just a handful of defectors could be fatal.
In addition, cooperation with Republicans could be made more difficult as many in the GOP are continuing to demonstrate fealty to the divisive Trump, backing his unfounded claims that his reelection loss was tainted by fraud. Congress will meet Wednesday to officially affirm Biden’s clear Electoral College victory over Trump. Many House and Senate Republicans say they will contest the validity of some of those votes, but their efforts are certain to fail.
There was no widespread fraud in the election, which a range of election officials across the country including Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Biden’s victory, have also vouched for the integrity of the elections in their states. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which includes three Trump-nominated justices.
In another hurdle for Democrats, it’s not clear which party will control the Senate. Republicans will control it unless Democrats win both Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday.
To win, 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.
With little margin for error, Pelosi suffered only a handful of Democratic defections in her latest display of her ability to line up support, and no opponent challenged her for the job. She has won plaudits from Democrats for leading their opposition to President Donald Trump, largely keeping her party’s moderates and progressives united and raising mountains of campaign funds.
“She's had one finger in the dike and one finger in the eye of Donald Trump," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.
But she's 80 years old, and ambitious younger members continue chafing at the longtime hold she and other older top leaders have had on their jobs. Democrats were also angry after an Election Day that many expected would to mean added House seats for the party but instead saw a dozen incumbents lose, without defeating a single GOP representative.
In the end, Rep. Jared Golden, D-Me., voted for Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth — the Constitution doesn't require the speaker to be a House member. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who is seen as a strong contender to succeed Pelosi whenever she steps down.
Three Democrats who opposed Pelosi's election as speaker two years ago voted present on Sunday — Reps. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and five others who opposed her in 2019 back her this time. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who has been battling cancer, missed the vote.
Democrats gave Pelosi a standing ovation as the final tally was announced, while the Republican side of the chamber was nearly empty. The vote took over two-and-a-half hours, an unusually long time as lawmakers were divided into groups to reduce health risks.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a progressive leader, backed Pelosi and told reporters that Democratic unity was important “at a time when the Republican Party is attempting an electoral coup.” She referred to the support many congressional Republicans are giving outgoing President Donald Trump’s baseless effort to reverse the election results.
Ocasio-Cortez said she and other progressives “have been in conversations and negotiations” with Pelosi, but did not describe what they accomplished.
With every vote at a premium, workers had constructed an enclosure in a balcony overlooking the House chamber so lawmakers exposed to or testing positive for the coronavirus could more safely vote.
In the House, one race in New York is still being decided and there is a vacancy in Louisiana after GOP Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, 41, died after contracting COVID-19.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and AP writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.