Democrats reclaimed power in the House on Thursday and officially elected Nancy Pelosi to be the next speaker, returning her to a position for which she made history as the first woman elected to the office, which puts her second in line to the presidency.
Pelosi overcame an internal Democratic rebellion among other hurdles to reclaim the gavel but on Thursday the opposition to her was nominal. She earned 220 votes, while Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, won 192, and suffered 15 Democratic defections after a number of newly elected members ran for the House pledging to oppose Pelosi.
Pelosi, who had previously served as speaker from 2007-2011, became the first former speaker to win re-election since Sam Rayburn in 1955.
The California Democrat had faced criticism from within her caucus. A number of Democrats had long called for new leadership. However, through a series of concessions including term limits for serving as speaker, Pelosi won over key dissenters such as Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tim Ryan of Ohio.
The opposition to Pelosi manifested itself in different ways. Three Democrats voted present (including the newly elected Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who first attempted to vote “no”, which was not an option).
Others backed a variety of candidates. There were three votes for incoming Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Cheri Bustos of Illinois, two for Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and other votes cast for figures as varied as former vice-president Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams, the losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia.
McCarthy faced less dissent in his own caucus as a number of members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus supported his candidacy and only five Republicans voted for Jim Jordan, the leader of that group and a sixth voted for Congressman Tom Massie of Kentucky. Jordan himself voted for McCarthy.
When the tally was announced, Democrats erupted in applause. Several members embraced Pelosi as her grandchildren, who were seated on the chamber floor, bounced up and down with excitement.
One Democratic aide hailed Pelosi as a “mastermind” for her comfortable win and said: “All of us are amazed by how easy today’s vote will be for her.”
The aide noted, however, that unlike Pelosi’s first stint as speaker, “managing this caucus will be more difficult than back in 2007”.
In their first act after officially taking control of the House of Representatives on Thursday, Democrats will test their power in a newly divided Washington by passing legislation to end a partial government shutdown that is entering its 13th day.
The 116th Congress was gaveled into session swathed in history, ushering in a diverse class of Democratic freshmen ready to confront president Donald Trump.
Though the vote on the proposed funding legislation is unlikely to break the impasse over the shutdown – Trump has vowed to reject it – it sets the tone for what is expected to be a tumultuous final two years of the president’s first term.
The 2019-20 Congress begins work on Thursday with roughly a quarter of the federal government closed, affecting 800,000 employees, in a shutdown triggered by Trump’s demand last month for the money for a wall along the US-Mexican border – opposed by Democrats – as part of any legislation to fund government agencies.
Trump started Thursday by blaming Democrats for the impasse, calling their opposition to a wall “strictly politics”.
He wrote on Twitter: “The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election. The Democrats know they can’t win based on all of the achievements of ‘Trump,’ so they are going all out on the desperately needed Wall and Border Security – and Presidential Harassment. For them, strictly politics!”
Trump previously said he would be “proud” to shut down the government to secure funding to build a physical barrier along America’s southern border.
During a contentious meeting with top congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday, Trump said the shutdown could last “a long time” and promised to reject any offer that did not include billions in taxpayer dollars for a wall, despite the fact he has repeatedly stated Mexico would be forced to pay for it.
After the new Congress convenes, Nancy Pelosi, who is all but assured to reclaim the gavel as House speaker, will bring up a spending package that would fund most of the federal government through the end of September and the Department of Homeland Security until 8 February.
The latter bill would allocate $1.3bn for border security measures, such as increased surveillance and fencing, but would deny Trump’s demand for $5.6bn to build 200 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.