(Bloomberg) — House Democrats voted to stick with Nancy Pelosi as their leader and nominee for speaker, placing confidence in her to unite a fractious caucus despite surprise losses in this month’s election that have emboldened congressional Republicans.
Pelosi, 80, must still win a majority of votes from the full House to remain as speaker when the new Congress begins in January. She will have a slimmer majority next year, which complicates her path to securing enough support to win the gavel on the first round of voting.
The California Democrat recognized President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in her remarks to the caucus after her election as House Democratic leader and nomination as speaker, calling on all Democrats to work together.
“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,” Pelosi said. “Joe Biden is a unifier, so that will make it easier for us.”
Democratic control of the 435-seat chamber will shrink from 232 to around 221 seats in January, with a handful of races still undecided. Those losses sparked public recriminations between progressive and centrist Democrats questioning the party’s electoral strategy, setting a fraught tone for the caucus.
The virtual caucus meeting featured nomination speeches, candidate statements and electronic voting as part of new precautions to prevent coronavirus exposure.
Pelosi’s octogenarian leadership team will also continue in their roles. Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, 81, is running unopposed to keep his job as majority leader. South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, 80, will stay on as majority whip.
New York’s Hakeem Jeffries, 50, will continue as Democratic Caucus chairman, and he has positioned himself as a possible heir to Pelosi.
This could be the last term that Pelosi, the only woman ever to serve as speaker, will hold the gavel. After Democrats won control of the House in 2018, Pelosi committed to not seeking the speakership beyond 2022 in response to demands from younger Democrats seeking generational change.
Fourteen Democrats didn’t vote for Pelosi in the last speakership election on the House floor on Jan. 3, 2019, after the 2018 midterms. Pelosi won with 220 votes.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who unsuccessfully tried to organize a challenge to Pelosi in late 2018 — only to later vote for her on the floor — told Boston’s GBH News before Wednesday’s caucus voting that he now supports Pelosi and “will always vote for the best person.”
“In this moment in history that candidate is Nancy Pelosi, because she is the best person to hold the caucus together, which is what we will need to do to accomplish Joe Biden’s agenda,” he explained.
Pelosi will benefit from “consensus across ideological lines in the House caucus that a public battle right now is bad optics,” according to Ross Baker, a professor of American politics at Rutgers University.
House Democrats could be Biden’s best allies in Washington, since control of the Senate still hangs on two January runoff races in Georgia. The losses of House seats was a disappointing result for congressional Democrats, but Pelosi has portrayed the election in a positive light, focusing on having a president who will sign their legislation.
Even so, discord has spilled out publicly over the net loss of House seats. Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, who as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was responsible for directing the caucus’s electoral strategy and resources, has decided not to seek re-election by her colleagues to that job. Representatives Tony Cardenas of California and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York are running to succeed her.
House Republicans elected their party officers on Tuesday, again choosing Kevin McCarthy of California as their leader. He ran unopposed.
To win election as speaker in January, Pelosi will need support from more than 50% of House members, which would be 218 votes if there are no absences or members voting “present.” Lawmakers can nominate and vote for people who are not members of Congress.
If no one gets a simple majority, then the vote would keep going to another round until someone passes the 50% threshold.
Even after the speakership election, Pelosi will face the same tricky math to pass bills with her narrow majority. In a letter to colleagues on Monday, Pelosi sought to emphasize the need for Democrats to build consensus and craft legislation that is “respectful of the thinking and values of all members.”
Marjorie Hershey, an Indiana University political scientist, said Pelosi has used subcommittee leadership to keep the majority together and give some of the new progressive members a voice in the caucus. Hershey said even those who don’t always agree with Pelosi on an ideological level will have a hard time replacing her leadership skills.
“Democratic liberals may be unhappy with her relative centrism, but you have to replace a leader with another leader, not just a set of ideas,” Hershey said.
(Updates with Pelosi quotes beginning in the third paragraph.)
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