Pelosi on track to be speaker again, faces difficult 2021

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks to the media, Wednesday Dec. 30, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The new Congress convened Sunday, just two days after lawmakers wrapped up their contentious previous session and with COVID-19 guidelines requiring testing and masks for House members. There was widespread mask-wearing and far fewer lawmakers and guests in the chamber than usual. It was a scene unimaginable two years ago when the last Congress commenced, before the pandemic struck.

As usual, the House was using its first vote to elect its speaker. Pelosi, who has led House Democrats since 2003 and is the only woman to be speaker, was widely expected to retain her post despite grumbling among some Democrats, a slim 222-211 edge over Republicans and a handful of absences because of the coronavirus. There were two vacancies in the 435-member House.

“No one counts better in the House of Representatives than Nancy Pelosi,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., in an interview, describing her vote-counting skills. “And she has earned the right to continue to lead the House forward because of an incredible track record of success in the midst of turbulent times in getting things done for everyday Americans,” said Jeffries, a member of his party’s leadership and a leading contender to replace her whenever Pelosi steps down.

To be reelected, Pelosi needed a majority of votes cast for specific candidates and could afford to lose only a handful of Democratic votes. House rules give her a bit of wiggle room because lawmakers who are absent or who vote “present” are not counted in the total number of those voting.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., may receive unanimous backing from Republicans, but he seemed likely to once again be minority leader.

Pelosi won plaudits from many Democrats for two years of leading their opposition to President Donald Trump, largely keeping her party’s moderates and progressives united on their joint goal of defeating him and raising mountains of campaign funds. No Democrat has stepped forward to challenge her, underscoring the perception that she would be all but impossible to topple.

But Pelosi is 80 years old, and ambitious younger members continue chafing at the longtime hold she and other older top leaders have had on their jobs. Democrats were also angry and divided after an Election Day that many expected would to mean added House seats for the party but instead saw a dozen incumbents lose, without defeating a single GOP representative.

Pelosi recently suggested anew that these would be her final two years as speaker, referencing a statement she made two years ago in which she said she would step aside after this period.

The speaker’s election was coming 17 days before Democrat Joe Biden is inaugurated as president. Yet rather than a fresh start for him and Pelosi, there were issues and undercurrents that will be carrying over from Trump’s tempestuous administration.

Though Congress enacted — and Trump finally signed — a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package late last month, Biden and many Democrats say they consider that measure a down payment. They say more aid is needed to bolster efforts to vaccinate the public, curb the virus and restore jobs and businesses lost to the pandemic.

Many Democrats, with the unlikely support of Trump, wanted to boost that bill’s $600 per person direct payments to $2,000 but were blocked by Republicans. Democrats want additional money to help state and local governments struggling to maintain services and avoid layoffs.

Biden’s priorities also include efforts on health care and the environment.

Guiding such legislation through the House will be a challenge for Pelosi because her party’s narrow majority means just a handful of defectors could be fatal.

In addition, cooperation with Republicans could be made more difficult as many in the GOP are continuing to demonstrate fealty to the divisive Trump, backing his unfounded claims that his reelection loss was tainted by fraud. Congress will meet Wednesday to officially affirm Biden’s clear Electoral College victory over Trump. Many House and Senate Republicans say they will contest the validity of some of those votes, but their efforts that are certain to fail.

There was no widespread fraud in the election, which a range of election officials across the country, as well as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Biden’s victory, have also vouched for the integrity of the elections in their states. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which includes three Trump-nominated justices.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear which party will control the Senate, which Republicans will hold unless Democrats win both Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday.

In the House, one race in New York is still being decided and there is a vacancy in Louisiana after GOP Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, 41, died after contracting COVID-19.

The Constitution requires the new Congress to begin on Jan. 3, a date that can only be changed by passing a law.

Lawmakers almost always move the Congress’ opening day to a weekday. That didn’t happen this year because Democrats were concerned that Trump might use the gap in the calendar to appoint administration officials without getting Senate confirmation.

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