WASHINGTON >> House Democrats returned Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to the speakership today for what may be her final term, handing a tested leader control of the slimmest House majority either party has faced in two decades.
Pelosi secured 216 votes, narrowly topping the 209 of Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, Republicans’ leader.
She managed to keep defections to just a handful, winning over several Democrats who had opposed her two years ago when Democrats had a more comfortable majority.
The nearly party-line vote punctuated an opening day marked more by precaution than pomp, as the 117th Congress convened for the first time under the threat of a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has rattled its ranks and the country.
Several House members sick with COVID-19 missed the session altogether and others cast their vote from behind a plexiglass enclosure specially constructed in a gallery overlooking the chamber.
After two years as President Donald Trump’s most outspoken Democratic antagonist, Pelosi will now be responsible for trying to shepherd through Congress as much of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda as possible, while maintaining her party’s majority before next year’s midterm elections.
It will be no easy task. With her party in control of 222 of 435 seats, Pelosi can only afford to lose a handful of Democrats on any given vote and faces a Republican opposition empowered by a better-than-expected showing in November’s election.
She will also have to contend with a health crisis that can sideline lawmakers.
“I am confident that the speaker’s election today will show a united Democratic Caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead, and that we are prepared to set our country on a new course,” Pelosi wrote today in a letter to colleagues. She limited defections from her party to just a handful, winning over former moderate and progressive critics.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate convened a more subdued opening day as both parties await a pair of runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday that will determine which of them begins the year in control.
The outcome could determine the fate of Biden’s legislative goals on climate change, taxes and health care; his response to the pandemic; and his ability to fill his Cabinet and federal judgeships.