Pelosi Takes Speaker Gavel as Tide Shifts for Democrats on Capitol Hill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds the gavel after taking it from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) – To raucous cheers and references to hip-hop group Naughty by Nature, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House on Thursday, returning the gavel to the hands of the first woman to ever hold the position.

Beginning the new Congress after a dramatic power shift for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, the House convened today at noon, jovial and loud. Before a morning prayer brought silence to the cacophonous chamber, Democrats applauded the announcement that the previous Congress, which was controlled by Republicans, had ended.

Pelosi meanwhile worked her way down the aisles of the chamber, shaking hands with and hugging members of her new caucus and the family members who accompanied them to the floor. Some members sported large, dark blue buttons that proclaimed “Madame Speaker.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., gave a rousing speech to officially nominate Pelosi, extolling her record as a legislator and as a leader of Democrats in the past. Democrats stood and applauded multiple times during the speech, and Pelosi’s was the only name Democrats officially put forward for the speaker nomination.

“Nancy Pelosi is a woman of faith, a loving wife, a mother of five, a grandmother of nine, a sophisticated strategist, a legendary legislator, a voice for the voiceless, a defender of the disenfranchised a powerful, profound, prophetic, principled public servant and that’s why we stand squarely behind her today,” Jeffries said, his voice rising with each phrase. “Let me be clear, House Democrats are ‘down with N.D.P.,’ Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, the once and future speaker of the United States House of Representatives, I proudly place her name in nomination. May God bless, her, may God bless the United States of America.”

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., put forward McCarthy as the Republican choice for speaker.

Lawmakers were called by name during the speaker vote, standing from their chairs to state their preference in the race.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a newly elected Democrat from New York who said he would not support Pelosi in the midterms, drew murmurs from his fellow Democrats when he cast his vote for former Vice President Joe Biden.

The sign at the office suite of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., is installed on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

A handful of new lawmakers stuck by promises to vote against Pelosi on Thursday, including Brindisi and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., though not in great enough numbers to sink her speakership aspirations.

Democrats applauded wildly as it was announced that Pelosi received 220 votes of the votes cast. 

A 78-year-old who has represented much of the San Francisco area in the House since 1987, Pelosi held the speaker position from 2007, when Democrats rose to power at the end of the George W. Bush administration, to 2011, when they lost it midway through President Barack Obama’s first term. 

Pelosi has touted a Democratic agenda focused on health care, infrastructure, wages and anti-corruption initiatives, with a sizable dose of oversight of the Trump administration.

In a speech after the speaker vote, Pelosi reiterated these pillars, while also laying out a vision of a Congress that is “transparent, bipartisan and unifying.” Pelosi said the House would take action on infrastructure and an elections bill, as well as “commonsense, bipartisan” gun legislation.

Pelosi’s vision of the House also focused on the middle class, saying she hopes lawmakers will be committed to securing the Social Security program and increasing wages and job opportunities for people worried about a changing economy.

“We must be pioneers of the future,” Pelosi said, to applause. “This Congress must accelerate a future that advances America’s preeminence in the world and opens up opportunities for all.”

She also said Congress would take action to protect from deportation people who were brought to the United States as children and to end discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Health care was also a focus of her first speech as speaker, as Pelosi said the House would commit to ensuring people with pre-existing conditions are able to secure health insurance, while also keeping intact Medicare and Medicaid.

Pelosi maintained her leadership position during the Democrats’ eight years as the minority party in Washington. As it became clear the party would sweep back into power in the 2018 midterm elections, however, it appeared far from certain she would be the choice for speaker. Though speculation and anticipation raged that she might not have the votes to win the speakership again, no firm opposition to Pelosi taking over the party’s top spot in Congress ever coalesced.

A wave of new, progressive candidates, including some who unseated Republicans in red districts and helped swing the balance of power in the House, either pointedly said they would not support Pelosi if they were elected, or that they would like to see new leadership in the party.

In August, NBC News counted 47 Democratic candidates who said they would not support Pelosi for speaker if they were elected in the 2018 midterm elections. Most of those candidates did not win their elections, and a good portion of the ones who did began walking back their stances on Pelosi when they arrived in Washington.

Freshman Democrat Mike Levin, D-CA, cast his vote for Pelosi Thursday after he joined other California freshmen Democrats shortly after he was elected in signing a letter in support of Pelosi’s bid for speaker.

“It was a fairly easy decision. Speaker Pelosi was, and will be, one of the most effective speakers because of her commitment … she is uniquely qualified to help us through a difficult period in history where we need a strong leader to deal with this president and republicans in Congress,” Levin said. “It was an honor to vote for her today and I told her so,” Levin added.

Levin, an environmental attorney who ran on a progressive platform to address climate change and has joined other progressive newbies in Congress in calling for a Green New Deal, told Courthouse News in an interview while there’s a “whole host of things to accomplish” the first order of business will be getting the government back up-and-running before 800,000 federal workers are set to lose their paychecks Jan. 8.

“My hope is cooler heads prevail on the other side and Senate Republicans do what’s right,” Levin said.

Pelosi also gave some progressive Democrats an olive branch in December, when she announced a new House committee on climate change, to be chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.

Meanwhile, a group of incumbent Democrats who had opposed Pelosi before, including Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, attempted to cobble together enough support from within the caucus to put forward a viable challenger during the party’s elections in November.

But that insurgency proved fruitless. At one point the group released a letter with 16 signatories calling for new leadership, but they were still unable to coax out a candidate to take on Pelosi. Fudge, who at one point said she was weighing a bid for speaker, announced in November that she had changed her mind and would be supporting Pelosi.

Ryan dropped his opposition in December after striking a deal to put in place term limits for party leadership positions, effectively bringing to an end the attempt to deny Pelosi the gavel.

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