The House on Sunday elected Nancy Pelosi as speaker for the 117th Congress, which is expected to be her last term with the gavel.
All but five Democrats voted for Pelosi, the 80-year-old Californian who has led the House Democratic Caucus since 2003. Two years ago, Pelosi committed to her caucus that she would not serve as speaker beyond 2022, and after the November election, she publicly affirmed she would adhere to that promise.
Pelosi received a total of 216 votes in Sunday’s floor vote. She needed 214 votes, which is the majority of members who participated in the election by voting for someone by name.
All 209 Republicans who participated in the speaker election voted for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a surprise show of unity from the GOP given conservative opposition to McCarthy in the past.
Golden voted for a fellow veteran, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. (The speaker does not have to be a member of the House.)
Lamb voted for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, who is considered a likely candidate to replace Pelosi after she retires.
Sherrill, Slotkin and Spanberger voted “present.”
Only named votes in the speaker election count, so while “present” votes are a form of protest, they lowered the overall majority Pelosi needed to win the speakership.
“I’m not supporting the speaker. I’ll be voting ‘present,’ because no one stepped up to run against her,” Slotkin told reporters before the vote.
Slotkin said she spoke with Pelosi about her decision — which follows through on a commitment she first made during her 2018 campaign — after the November 2020 election.
“It’s important to me that I live up to the commitments I make to my district,” the Michigan Democrat said. “And I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for more Midwestern leaders, people who represent areas like where I’m from. And also I think it’s important to be training a next generation of leaders.”
Slotkin voted “present” two years ago, so her vote was less surprising than Sherrill’s and Spanberger’s. In 2019, they voted for Illinois’ Cheri Bustos, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the time.
Progressive firebrands Cori Bush of Missouri and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the latter of whom supported Pelosi in 2019, did not vote when their names were called during the alphabetical roll call, leaving some suspense as to whether they were waiting until the end to see if there was room for them to vote against Pelosi.
Although there were exactly two more votes Pelosi could have lost and still been elected, both Bush and Ocasio-Cortez eventually voted for her.
‘I am confident’
Pelosi, who often touts her skills as a vote counter, seemed sure the results would go her way.
“I am confident that the Speaker’s election today will show a united Democratic Caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead,” she wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday morning ahead of the vote.
The opposition to Pelosi this Congress was significantly smaller than it was in 2019, when 15 Democrats did not vote for her. While Pelosi did win over some of her previous skeptics, more Democrats may have defected this year if they could have done so without jeopardizing the results.
The five Democrats who did not vote for Pelosi in 2019 but did in 2021 were: Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Jason Crow of Colorado, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Kathleen Rice of New York and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
Schrader had told CQ Roll Call in November, as he was still considering whether to vote for Pelosi, that the speaker’s commitment not to serve beyond 2022 was helpful to him and likely would make a difference for other longtime members who have opposed her previously. But for members from swing districts entering their second term, Schrader expected most would need to vote with their districts. That prediction largely was borne out in the final tally.
Another previous Pelosi defector, Anthony Brindisi, is trailing in his rematch against former GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd District. The results have not yet been certified amid a recanvassing of the votes.
The other Democrat who voted against Pelosi in 2019 is Jeff Van Drew, who switched to the Republican Party in late 2019, partly over his opposition to the House impeaching President Donald Trump. Van Drew was reelected as a Republican in November and voted for McCarthy on Sunday.
Democrats starting the 117th Congress with just 222 seats provided Pelosi and her opponents little room to maneuver. The math this year was further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, since any members sidelined by the virus and unable to attend the proceedings would affect the majority threshold.
Ultimately, however only one Democrat, Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, missed the speaker vote.
Hastings has pancreatic cancer and has not been present in the Capitol for months as he undergoes treatment. Pelosi put her hand over her heart when the clerk called his name.
Two Republicans, David Valadao of California and María Elvira Salazar of Florida, were not present because they had tested positive for COVID-19.
Three others — Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., Tim Ryan, D-Ohio and Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla. — are under quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure but have tested negative. They voted in the speaker election from a plexiglass-enclosed area of the House gallery.
The Capitol’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, who made the arrangements for the quarantining members to vote, said in a statement that guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency allow federal essential workers, “in order to ensure continuity of operations of essential functions,” to continue work following COVID-19 exposure if they’re asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and others.
“The highest possible safeguards have been implemented including separate, enhanced ventilation in this space and separate holding facilities for any Members utilizing Gallery 4,” Monahan said, referring to the part of the chamber where the quarantining members voted. “This step will only be necessary until proxy voting resumes as an option for impacted Members.”
Proxy voting will be reauthorized in the House rules package for the 117th Congress that the chamber will consider Monday.
The speaker election lasted nearly three hours. To provide for social distancing, members came to the floor to vote in groups. There were periodic breaks in the voting as one group cleared and another came onto the floor, with most taking a seat. Members who were seated stood to cast their votes.