New Congress Opens as Pelosi Seeks Speakership With Slim Margin

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The new U.S. Congress opened Sunday with Nancy Pelosi seeking the speakership for what could be the last time, relying on a slimmer Democratic majority and with the progressive and moderate wings of her party both clamoring for a new generation of leadership.

Neither flank of the Democratic Party offered an alternative to Pelosi, and the party will need to remain unified to elect a Democrat as House Speaker. Pelosi must win support from 50% of members voting -- during a global pandemic -- to claim another term leading the chamber.

“I’m fine,” Pelosi said last week when asked whether she has the support to continue as speaker, after the Democratic majority shrunk to 11 votes from 37 after Republican gains in the November election. The vote is ongoing.

For the past two years, Pelosi has been the Democrats’ main foil for President Donald Trump, and that’s helped keep her caucus unified despite the ideological spread from progressives like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to centrists like Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. For the next term, Pelosi’s challenge is to keep the party marching behind President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda.

Pelosi, 80, the only woman to hold the speaker’s gavel, faced a mini-revolt in 2019 after Democrats regained the House majority in the midterm elections. Fifteen members of her party cast their ballots for someone else as speaker or voted present, and at least 10 of them will be part of the Democratic delegation again this year.

Republicans have tried to stoke dissent among Democrats, particularly those from closely divided districts. Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super-PAC for House Republicans, tweeted that, “We view any weak-kneed Democrats voting present or *conveniently* skipping the vote as a move to enable Pelosi and the left’s radical agenda -- we’ll be sure voters know exactly what they did.”

New York Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries formally put Pelosi’s name in nomination. Republican Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney nominated GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy of California for speaker. The majority party nominee typically readily claims the speakership.

Roll Call

The vote will take longer than usual because of procedures in place because of the pandemic. Illustrating the risks and the stakes for Pelosi, a special booth was constructed in the House gallery to allow voting by at least three members who are technically in quarantine because of exposure to Covid-19. Procedures that allowed for proxy voting in the last Congress haven’t been adopted in the current session.

Two Democrats and one Republican are expected to use the structure at the direction of the attending physician of Congress, Brian Monahan, according to an official.

Republican Representative Rodney Davis was among the GOP members who blasted the accommodation.

“This is against everything we have been told during the course of this pandemic for House operations,” Davis said. “To build this structure in the dark of the night only to only protect the votes that Pelosi needs to get re-elected speaker is shameful.”

The winner of the speaker election must gain an actual majority of votes cast by both parties. Democrats hold a 222-211 advantage in the new Congress, with two seats still open. In addition, one Democrat and two Republicans are absent on Sunday. That leaves Pelosi little room for party defections.

“It is clear that we’re going to need to unite around a Democratic speaker and not Kevin McCarthy,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, chair of the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Each lawmaker who shows up on Sunday can nominate and vote for people who aren’t even members of Congress, or even vote “present,” rather than for their party’s nominee, a move that lowers the threshold for achieving a majority.

If no candidate emerges with a simple majority of all the votes cast for a named person, the balloting would continue until someone passes the 50% threshold. The last multiple-ballot speaker election was in 1923, when the winner wasn’t decided until the ninth ballot.

‘Bad Optics’

Ross Baker, a professor of American politics at Rutgers University, said Pelosi will benefit from “consensus across ideological lines in the House caucus that a public battle right now is bad optics.” Democrats need to show they’re ready and able to work with the incoming Biden administration to get things accomplished, he said.

The 10 returning Democrats who didn’t vote for Pelosi in 2019 are representatives Elissa Slotkin of Michigan; Abigail Spanberger of Virginia; Mikie Sherill of New Jersey; Jared Golden of Maine; Jason Crow of Colorado; Ron Kind of Wisconsin; Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; Kurt Schrader of Oregon; Kathleen Rice of New York; and Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

Among those who’ve publicly stated their intentions, Slotkin, who represents a Republican-leaning district, said Sunday that she would vote “present,” as she did in 2019. Golden, also from a swing district, voted for Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. Lamb voted for Jeffries.

Schrader’s office confirmed he’ll back Pelosi this time around. Cooper and Crow both voted for Pelosi. “I will vote for Pelosi for Speaker because she has led a contentious Democratic caucus well during the pandemic and the Trump presidency,” Cooper said before casting his vote.

Jamaal Bowman of New York, a progressive who ousted a long-time Democratic incumbent, voted for Pelosi.

“Our country needs stability right now and it is really important for the Democratic Party to come together,” Bowman said, adding that after conversations with Pelosi he is “very, very confident” that progressive priorities like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal will be brought to the floor.

Next Generation

Ocasio-Cortez has been among the most vocal Democratic House members calling for current leadership to give way to a younger generation. But in an interview with the Intercept published in December, she said, “the left isn’t really making a plan” for how to accomplish that in the near future. Her office didn’t return emails seeking comment on Pelosi’s election.

Pelosi committed in 2018 to not seeking the speakership beyond 2022 in response to demands from younger Democrats seeking generational change. Talking with reporters last month, Pelosi declined to directly respond to a question about that commitment stands.

“We never expected to have another term now,” she said. “I consider this a gift.”

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