Speaker Nancy Pelosi secured her caucus’ nomination for another term leading the House on Wednesday as Democrats kicked off their multiday leadership elections for the new Congress.
Pelosi ran unopposed and only needed a simple majority of the Democratic Caucus during the secret ballot vote. But she’ll still have to clinch 218 votes on the House floor in January to officially become speaker — and she has a much narrower majority to work with this time around after Democrats lost more than half a dozen seats on Election Day.
Democrats also nominated House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) for new terms — cementing the trio that has ruled the caucus for the last 14 years.
In her remarks to the caucus, Pelosi underscored the caucus’s priorities for the coming Congress under a President-elect Joe Biden.
“The theme I think of what we do next has to be about justice. It has to be about justice in our economy. It has to be about justice in our justice system, passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” Pelosi said, according to a copy of her remarks provided by her office. “Justice in our environment, environmental justice. Justice in our health care.”
Democrats also selected the caucus’s vice chair, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), to fill the role of assistant speaker, succeeding Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) as he departs for the Senate in January. With Clark ascending the ranks, two of the four top Democrats in the 117th Congress will be women.
The appointment of the top three Democratic leadership hasn’t been without some private grumbling, particularly after the caucus’ unexpected string of losses on Nov. 3 shrunk its majority to its smallest in two decades. The slim majority could pose limits on Pelosi’s and President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, and raises concerns among Democrats about keeping control of the House in 2022.
Pelosi, 80, and Hoyer, 81, have led the Democratic Caucus for nearly two decades — with the 80-year-old Clyburn elevated to whip in 2007 after Democrats won the majority — leading some lawmakers to reignite calls for a transition plan to a younger cadre of leaders.
Some Democrats have openly wondered if Pelosi still plans to step down in two years, a pledge she made in 2018 to win the speakership for a second time. In recent weeks, Pelosi has refused to entertain the question when asked by reporters.
Despite the complaints, no other lawmakers stepped forward to challenge the three House leaders for their positions.
“Nancy Pelosi is a legendary speaker. One of the best who’s ever done it, ever, in the history of the republic. She certainly has my strong support,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Pelosi — told reporters.
“Whatever happens in the future is going to happen,” he added. “During the Trump era, we’ve just been all trying to get to tomorrow. Now, we’re trying to get to Jan. 20 and it will be a new day in America.”
Pelosi was nominated via a voice vote, which some privately speculated was done to give political cover to swing district Democrats, allowing them to say they voted against her.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) gave the nominating speech, and several Democrats seconded: Reps. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Reps.-elect Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.).
On the first of their two-day election, Democrats selected their top five Democrats, including the first contested election between Clark and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) for assistant speaker. Both Democrats had already served in Pelosi’s inner circle.
Clark — a well-liked progressive and prolific fundraiser — defeated Cicilline in a secret ballot vote of 135 to 92.
Wednesday’s vote caps weeks of member-to-member phone calls and Zoom meetings as each candidate, and their extensive whip team, made their pitch to colleagues. The efforts were more complicated than past years, as Democrats have had few chances to see their colleagues in person. And for the first time this year, the election is entirely virtual; members cast their ballots remotely using an iPhone app.
The other competitive race will be held on Thursday, for the position of caucus vice chair. Reps. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) are contending for vice chair.
Democratic officials have scrambled in recent weeks to set up an entirely remote voting process for members, eager to avoid any kind of in-person gathering amid soaring coronavirus cases both in D.C. and across the country. This is in contrast to House Republicans, who conducted their leadership elections in-person at a D.C. hotel Tuesday after receiving a special waiver from the city.
Jeffries and his team ultimately designed an encrypted app to be automatically downloaded on member’s iPhones, which will keep each lawmaker’s vote secret even to the vote counters.
Some complications did arise. For instance, not every member uses their House-issued phone, and some needed one shipped to them overnight. But by Wednesday — after several rounds of test votes — lawmakers and aides were able to cast their vote successfully.
Few seats at Pelosi’s leadership table are expected to change next year, since Clark already belongs to that group.
Kelly would be the first Black woman elected to leadership since Shirley Chisholm in 1977. Aguilar would be the highest-ranking Latino, after Luján’s election to the Senate this month.
Democrats will need to decide one more leadership post in the coming weeks: the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The race for DCCC chief has become one of the House’s closest-watched contests since Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) opted not to seek a second term this month following the party’s disappointing election results.
Democrats will vote on the DCCC race as well as a slate of committee chairs when the House returns after Thanksgiving break.
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