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.