House Democrats rallied Sunday to elect Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker in the 117th Congress, overcoming opposition from a handful of restive moderates urging new leadership to grant Pelosi her fourth term at the top of the chamber.
The 216-209 vote was more dramatic than anyone would have guessed just two months ago, when Democrats went into the elections predicting big gains to pad their House majority in 2021. Instead, they lost at least 13 seats, trimming their numbers to a mere 222 seats — the smallest House majority in decades — and complicating Pelosi’s effort to keep the Speaker’s gavel for another two-year term.
She has vowed it will be her last.
A total of five Democrats declined to support Pelosi on the chamber floor, urging a changing of the guard after 18 years under Pelosi’s reign — a sharp decline from the 15 defections she encountered in 2019.
Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) voted for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a military veteran, while Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) opted for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Three other Democrats — Reps. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.) — voted “present,” allowing them to log their disapproval with the longtime leader while simultaneously lowering her threshold for victory.
“I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for more Midwestern leaders, people who represent areas like where I’m from,” Slotkin said shortly before the vote. “It’s a commitment that I made in March of 2018 before I was elected.”
Yet the detractors fell short of blocking Pelosi, who ran unopposed, and there was a clear sense that the process was orchestrated in such a way to allow a certain number of moderate Democrats in tough districts to register their opposition to the liberal leader for messaging purposes back home while keeping their ranks small enough to ensure she kept the gavel.
Paving her path, several Democrats who had opposed Pelosi in 2019 had a change of heart this year and backed her, including Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Ron Kind (Wis.), Jason Crow (Colo.) and Kathleen Rice (N.Y.).
Heading into the vote, there were also open questions surrounding the intentions of several incoming progressive lawmakers — including Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) — who had knocked off Democratic incumbents in the primaries and had declined to forecast how they’d vote in the Speaker’s race.
In the end, however, those newcomers declined to go after Pelosi, citing a need for Democrats to unite heading into the new Congress.
“Our country needs stability right now,” Bowman said coming off of the chamber floor after the vote. “It’s really important for the Democratic Party to come together and figure out not just how to govern for the 117th but going forward for the country.”
The timing of the vote might also have played to Pelosi’s advantage. It came just two days before a pair of special Senate elections in Georgia will decide which party controls the upper chamber next year and three days before Congress will vote to affirm Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in the face of opposition from conservative allies of President Trump who are fighting to overturn the election results in several battleground states.
Against that backdrop, Pelosi’s allies had warned her critics against creating a dramatic scene on the chamber floor, which would have highlighted the party’s divisions just as it is trying to unite behind Biden and its candidates in Georgia.
Opening day of a new Congress is usually filled with pomp and celebration, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, things were much more subdued in the Capitol. There were not as many children and grandchildren wandering around the complex, and lawmakers sported masks, opted for elbow bumps over handshakes and hugs, and voted in multiple shifts to avoid overcrowding on the House floor.
COVID-19 hung over the Speaker’s vote as well, as Pelosi and her allies fretted about the possibility that a new, last-minute outbreak could cause a flurry of Democratic absences and jeopardize her quest to secure the gavel. In fact, the margins were so tight that some Democrats who had recently tested positive for COVID-19 traveled to Washington anyway to cast their vote for Pelosi.
Some of the day’s drama focused on Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who on Dec. 28 announced that she had received a positive test. Despite that diagnosis, Moore flew to Washington and cast her vote for Pelosi on the House floor, prompting howls from Republicans who claimed that Democrats were more concerned about securing the Speaker’s gavel for Pelosi than the health and safety of lawmakers and staff.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called that decision flat-out “wrong.”
“I couldn’t imagine that [Pelosi] would bring somebody in here that could cause people problems,” McCarthy told The Hill.
But Moore pushed back on the GOP criticism, saying that she had been cleared by the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, and had quarantined for two weeks — well beyond the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. It’s unclear why Moore had waited until seven days ago to publicly report her positive COVID-19 test.
On Sunday, she also told reporters she had not had a negative COVID-19 test before coming to the Capitol, where there have been waves of outbreaks among lawmakers, police officers and reporters in recent months.
Still, Pelosi needed virtually every one of her 216 votes, relying on the participation of several members who were ailing or suffering personal tragedies, including Moore; Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), whose 25-year-old son died last week; and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), who had been hospitalized in critical condition earlier in the year.
DeSaulnier’s vote for Pelosi was his first back in Washington since the start of the year, and Democrats on the chamber floor burst into applause when he voiced her name.