Nancy Pelosi has been reelected speaker of the House by her caucus for Congress’s next session, marking her fourth term with the gavel. The caucus vote was conducted virtually, but a voice vote approved Pelosi. Pelosi 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 House 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 on November 18, 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 Republican party appears heavily favored to maintain control of the Senate. Additionally, House Republicans picked up at least eight seats, and several races are too close to call. Other top Democratic leaders, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 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 as well. For the fourth-ranking position, assistant speaker, Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark defeated Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL), who ran the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said she would not run for another term. Congressmen Tony Cardenas of California and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York are vying for the position, which will be decided later this month.
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 Republican 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. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has downplayed the Republican 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 crucial swing states, helping the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket ultimately win in those places. The speaker circulated a letter on November 16 urging unity among Democrats, saying that “President-elect Biden’s message and mandate as a unifier have given the American people hope.”
When Nancy Pelosi was reelected in 2018, 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 November 18 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 to respond 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.
Nancy 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 a reporter who pressed whether she would need to modify her legislative approach. “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.”