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Pelosi Reelected Speaker By House Democrats Despite Party's Losses

Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., broke barriers when she was the first woman elected speaker of the House in 2007. Democrats lost the majority in 2011, but she regained the gavel in 2019 when Democrats ousted the GOP in the 2018 midterms.
J. Scott Applewhite
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., broke barriers when she was the first woman elected speaker of the House in 2007. Democrats lost the majority in 2011, but she regained the gavel in 2019 when Democrats ousted the GOP in the 2018 midterms.

Updated at 1:21 p.m. ET

Nancy Pelosi has been reelected speaker of the House by her caucus for the next session of Congress, marking what will be her fourth term with the gavel. The caucus vote was conducted virtually, but Pelosi was approved by a voice vote.

Pelosi, 80, did not face any challenge for her post, but she will also need to secure a simple majority — 218 Democratic votes — by the full House of Representatives in January to be sworn in again as speaker. She indicated after the vote that the upcoming term could be her last.

In 2019, several Democrats voted for someone other than her on the floor, but with a slimmer margin in the majority after the 2020 election, she cannot afford to lose more than a handful of votes.

In remarks to her colleagues after the vote Wednesday, Pelosi made a pitch for unity.

"As we go forward with liberty and justice for all, we must do so listening to the American people, listening to each other with respect, acting to unify — Joe Biden is a unifier, so that will make it easier for us — remembering the guidance of our Founders: E pluribus unum, from many, one," she said.

House Democrats are holding leadership elections as they grapple with unexpected losses and the prospects for a Congress that remains divided. The GOP appears likely to maintain control of the Senate. Plus House Republicans picked up at least eight seats, and several races are too close to call.

Other top Democratic leaders — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. — who are 81 and 80 — also ran unopposed and were approved by the caucus to serve in those roles next year. House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York did not face any competition for his post as the fifth-ranking leader and was reelected on Wednesday.

For the fourth-ranking post, assistant speaker, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark defeated Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who ran the House Democrats' campaign arm, said she would not run for another term. Reps. Tony Cardenas of California and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York are vying for the position, which will be decided later this month.

Unexpected losses

Before the election, top leaders and political analysts had forecast that Democrats would expand their majority — potentially picking up as many as 15 seats. But the party's disappointing results sparked a blame game that has increased tensions about policy priorities going forward.

Moderates who were ousted or won very narrowly say progressives who pressed to "defund the police" or advocated for sweeping policies like the Green New Deal gave GOP opponents an opening by taking the party off-message when voters were concerned about the economy or the coronavirus.

Progressives, on the other hand, have argued their message drove turnout among young voters and people of color.

Pelosi has downplayed the GOP gains, pointing out that Democrats flipped 40 seats in the 2018 midterms — a figure that meant they had more incumbents to protect this year. She also said Democrats deserve credit for boosting turnout in key swing states, helping the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket ultimately win in those places.

The speaker circulated a letter on Monday urging unity among Democrats, saying that "President-elect Biden's message and mandate as a unifier have given the American people hope."

Managing factions

When Pelosi was reelected two years ago, she agreed to limit herself to two terms as speaker, but the caucus never formally adopted rules to lock in the term limit for the speaker or other top leadership positions.

After winning support from her colleagues, Pelosi suggested on Wednesday that she would stick by that pledge. She noted that the caucus did not choose to enact term limits for leaders or committee chairs, but told reporters, "Whether it passes or not, I will abide by those limits that are there."

She has moved to expand the slots on the leadership ladder as a way of responding to sentiment inside the caucus that she held on too tightly to power and had not given more opportunities for newer members to gain valuable experience.

The caucus will vote on some contested races for those lower-level leadership jobs on Thursday.

Jeffries, 50, who was asked about recruiting other members for leadership posts in the future, said the current team has a "tremendous mix of experience."

The New Yorker, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Pelosi, called her "a legendary speaker, one of the best who has ever done it – ever in the history of the republic. She certainly has my strong support."

Pelosi will need to manage various ideological factions inside her caucus, which already have different priorities for next year, with a Democrat in the White House.

Progressive hopes for broad climate change legislation and significant expansion for health care coverage will face challenges. The California Democrat has negotiated those differences before and brushed off questions last week from reporter who pressed whether she would need to modify her approach to legislation.

"Not at all," Pelosi insisted. She added that "our leverage and our power is greatly enhanced by having a Democratic president in the White House, especially Joe Biden."

Republicans restore McCarthy

House Republicans staged their leadership elections on Tuesday and reelected the same slate of leaders to the top posts: Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California will be House minority leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana will serve as minority whip and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming will remain House GOP Conference chair.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Corrected: November 17, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
In a previous version of this story, we gave the incorrect ages for Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn. Hoyer is 81, and Clyburn is 80.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.