Nancy Pelosi is on track to be elected speaker of the House for the 117th Congress on Sunday, clinching the gavel for the fourth and — potentially last — time during the most chaotic and unpredictable season in Washington in a lifetime.
In a sign of just how delicate the vote count is, and with a recognition of the surging pandemic, House officials constructed a special plexiglass box in the chamber Sunday so that members who tested negative for the coronavirus but were quarantining after exposure — two Democrats and one Republican in this case — could still cast their vote.
The move sparked outrage and head-scratching among lawmakers and House officials, some of whom openly questioned whether the speaker’s vote mattered more than the safety of lawmakers and staff.
“The lack of communication with the minority makes this 100 percent political,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee. “To build a structure like that, in the dark of night, to only protect the votes that Speaker Pelosi needs to get reelected speaker, is shameful.”
In some ways, this is the most challenging speaker’s bid for Pelosi yet as she has had to meticulously lock down every vote, with nearly zero room for error due to razor-thin party margins, rebellious Democrats and the potential for last-minute absences due to the coronavirus.
The magic number Pelosi needs to secure the gavel remained a moving target Sunday. There are currently 222 Democrats and 211 Republicans in the new Congress, with two vacant seats. In addition, three members were absent and at least one Democrat was planning to vote present, further lowering the total vote tally needed.
“This is a moment of great challenge here in America filled with trials and tribulation, with a lot of pain and suffering and death,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said in his nominating speech for Pelosi. “Nancy Pelosi is a resilient leader. Brighter days are ahead in the United States of America.”
The mechanics of the floor vote looked far different than two years ago, when Pelosi clinched the speaker’s gavel for a historic second time. While each member still stood one by one to cast their vote, only a few dozen lawmakers from each party were supposed to be on the floor at one time.
On the Democratic side, lawmakers sat several seats away from each other, though many Republicans flouted health guidelines and sat shoulder to shoulder in the chamber.
The tone of the day, too, was less celebratory than in 2018, as the public health crisis remained top of mind for members of both parties. Several members did use their moment in the spotlight to deliver personal accolades to the speaker: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), for instance, described Pelosi as “the finest speaker in the history of the United States.”
Republicans, meanwhile, supported House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker, including several members who rejected him last time around.
But there was far less of the jubilance that surrounded the vote two years ago.
Pelosi, 80, and her allies have engaged in an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying blitz over the last several weeks to secure full support within the caucus, including from some longtime outspoken critics of the speaker. Senior Democrats were painstakingly managing attendance up until the final hours — even reaching out to offices multiple times to confirm lawmakers would be present.
Heading into the vote, Democrats were expecting only one absence on their side — 84-year-old Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who is battling pancreatic cancer. Republicans were anticipating two absences — Reps.-elect David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), who both tested positive for coronavirus in recent days.
Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, who also tested positive for coronavirus recently, was cleared from quarantine at midnight and able to travel to Washington for the vote. Moore told POLITICO that while she had not received a negative coronavirus test, she had been cleared by her doctors to attend on Sunday.
But not every Democrat was planning to vote for Pelosi, despite stark warnings from senior party members that they should do so. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) became the first defection of the day, casting his vote for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), though his vote had been widely expected.
And Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who was one of 15 Democrats who didn’t back Pelosi for speaker in 2019, confirmed she plans to vote “present” this time too.
“I’m not supporting the speaker,” Slotkin said before the vote. “I’ll be voting present because no one stepped up to run against her.”
Ten of those 15 Democrats were returning for the 117th Congress, while three lost election, one, Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York, was still locked in a tight vote count for his seat and one, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, switched parties last year.
Pelosi successfully flipped several of those Democratic defectors in the run up to Sunday’s election but the votes of a few, including Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), remained unknown.
For the first time since May, all members had to be present and voting instead of some defaulting to the proxy voting put in place last Congress as the pandemic gripped the country. And the vote is expected to last hours – with lawmakers, clad in their required masks, being summoned to the House chamber in batches to cast their vote in order to limit the number of people gathering together at once.
Pelosi has already made history during her three-decades plus in the House, including nearly two decades leading the Democratic caucus. The California Democrat is the only woman to ever wield the speaker’s gavel and the first lawmaker in six decades to reclaim the gavel in 2019 after losing it.
Now Pelosi must navigate one of the slimmest House majorities in decades through the final turbulent days of President Donald Trump’s tenure before preparing to usher in a new era under President-elect Joe Biden.
One of the final gasps of Trump’s term will come Wednesday as Republicans in the House and Senate will make one last, doomed attempt to overturn Biden’s victory results when Congress meets to certify the election results.
The effort has zero chance of success but will ensure a long day, possibly bleeding into the next, after a dozen Republican senators announced plans to join with dozens of their GOP House colleagues to challenge Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Pelosi’s expected fourth-term as speaker comes two years after a group of Democratic rebels tried to block her path to the gavel, only backing down after she agreed to a four-year term limit atop the House.
But in many ways since then Pelosi has only consolidated more power, positioning herself as the leading adversary to Trump during a chaotic 116th Congress that started under the longest government shutdown in history, eventually led to the impeachment of the president before being quickly consumed by the coronavirus that effectively shut down the nation for the last nine months.
Pelosi did not face a challenger this time but has been repeatedly questioned about whether this in fact would be her last term.
“What I said then is whether it passes or not, I will abide by those limits that are there,” Pelosi told reporters in November about the deal she cut with Democratic rebels in 2018.