Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was re-elected speaker of the House on Sunday despite a shrinking Democratic majority in the House.
With Democrats holding a smaller majority than in the previous Congress, Pelosi could afford to have only a handful of lawmakers peel off and opt to write in someone else. The final count was 216 to 209, with just two Democrats — Jared Golden of Maine and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania — choosing someone other than Pelosi and three others voting present.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy got 209 votes from his own party. Pelosi won the previous vote for speaker by 220-192 over McCarthy.
Sunday marked the swearing in of the 117th Congress. In a letter to colleagues Sunday morning, Pelosi said the new Congress will convene "during a time of extraordinary difficulty."
"Each of our communities has been drastically affected by the pandemic and economic crisis: 350,000 tragic deaths, over 20 million infections, millions without jobs — a toll almost beyond comprehension," she said. "Thank you for your generosity of spirit and patriotism to take on this challenge For The People."
"I am enormously grateful for the trust that Members have placed in me," she added. "I am confident that the Speaker's election today will show a united Democratic Caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead."
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the vote for speaker — which must be conducted in person — looked different from previous votes. Members were broken up into separate groups rather than gathered on the floor at once.
A handful of members were not expected to be present, including Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who is battling pancreatic cancer, and David Valadao, R-Calif., and Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., who recently tested positive for Covid-19.
In a statement Sunday afternoon, Dr. Brian Monahan, Congress' attending physician, announced the setup of an area above the House floor for members exposed to Covid-19 but who have tested negative so they could vote in person while remaining quarantined. A Capitol official said two Democrats and one Republican were using the option. It was not yet known which members did so.
"The highest possible safeguards have been implemented including separate, enhanced ventilation in this space and separate holding facilities for any Members utilizing Gallery 4," Monahan said. "This step will only be necessary until proxy voting resumes as an option for impacted Members."
Senators elected in November were also sworn in Sun. The ceremonies marked the end of Republican David Perdue's term in office. Perdue left his Georgia seat vacant until either he or Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff is certified as the winner of one of Tuesday's widely watched runoffs. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., also faces a runoff Tuesday, but she remains in her seat through the election because she was appointed to continue a term that did not expire Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., kicked off the new year by acknowledging the "challenging time" ahead. McConnell faces a growing contingent of Republican senators who have threatened to contest the Electoral College results Wednesday as Congress convenes to certify President-elect Joe Biden's win.
"From political division to a deadly pandemic to adversaries around the world, the hurdles before us are many, and they are serious," said McConnell, who has been urging senators not to challenge the results. "But there's also plenty of reason for hope."
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The Senate stands at 51 Republican senators and 48 Democrats after the ceremonies. Should Democrats prevail in the Georgia runoffs, the split would become 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaking vote, giving Democrats the majority.
Earlier Sunday, a number of Republican senators and House members released separate statements opposing the election challenge planned for Wednesday.
"To take action otherwise — that is, to unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process — would amount to stealing power from the people and the states," said seven House Republicans, including some of the House's most conservative members. "It would, in effect, replace the electoral college with Congress, and in so doing strengthen the efforts of those on the left who are determined to eliminate it or render it irrelevant."