By noon on Sunday, when the 116th Congress had disbanded and the new 117th Congress was being sworn in, the longtime San Francisco Democrat was just a regular member again, the House rules and leadership structure resetting as they do after each biennial election cycle.
Three hours later, around 3pm on the East Coast, a slim House Democratic majority voted for Ms Pelosi to serve as the chamber’s speaker for a second consecutive term, her fourth overall.
“I am enormously grateful for the trust that Members have placed in me,” she wrote in a letter to her Democratic caucus on Sunday.
Ms Pelosi expressed confidence heading into the day that Sunday’s election for speaker would “show a united Democratic Caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead,” including ratifying Joe Biden’s November Electoral College victory and continuing to pass legislation to handle the ongoing Covid crisis.
This is, ostensibly, Ms Pelosi’s last term atop the House Democratic totem pole. She indicated after the election results began to crystallise in November that she intends to keep her promise from 2018 to step down from her leadership post at the end of the next Congress in 2023.
The California congresswoman stepping down would spell the end of a 20-year reign as the top-ranking Democrat in the chamber.
Ms Pelosi took over for former Congressman Dick Gephardt as House Democratic Leader in 2003.
A thin margin
The speaker faced no formal opposition within her own party for the speaker’s gavel this year, although a handful of both moderates and progressives refused to vote for her on Sunday, instead merely voting “present.”
One of those members is Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, who won a second term by 4 percentage points in Michigan’s 8th District. Donald Trump carried Ms Slotkin’s district over President-elect Joe Biden, 50-49 per cent.
“I’m not supporting the Speaker. I’ll be voting present, because no one stepped up to run against her. It’s a commitment that I made in March of 2018 before I was elected,” Ms Slotkin explained to reporters at the Capitol on Sunday.
Ms Slotkin is one of a small cadre of moderate Democratic congresswomen in swing districts, including Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger and Maine’s Jared Golden, whose opposition to Ms Pelosi’s stewardship of the party has become a central aspect of their public images to help survive in hostile political terrain.
Those Democrats’ opposition to Ms Pelosi was more consequential to this year’s vote than last year’s, with the party’s majority pared down to a single-digit margin over Republicans in the 2020 elections. Ms Pelosi could not afford more than a handful of defectors voting “present” (or for Democrats other than Ms Pelosi) on Sunday to keep the gavel.
“I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for more Midwestern leaders, people who represent areas like where I’m from. And also I think it’s important to be training a next generation of leaders… as just a healthy habit of building the bench. So I was up front with her. We had a one-on-one conversation right after the election, just as we did back in 2018. And I’m going to vote to live up to that commitment to my district,” Ms Slotkin said on Sunday.
With less wiggle room this time around, Ms Pelosi managed to win back some longtime Democrats who did not vote for her in 2018. Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Kurt Schrader of Oregon both cast votes for Ms Pelosi on Sunday after snubbing her at the beginning of last Congress.
The speaker also managed to capture some crucial votes from members who had declined to tip their hands heading into Sunday. Most notably, she split votes among the “Squad” of young progressives of colour that includes Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others.
Freshman Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York — who appears to have joined the “Squad” — cast an early vote for Ms Pelosi on Sunday. So did Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Ms Omar and Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri, another freshman progressive supported by the leftist group Justice Democrats, did not.
Coming in second place in the race for the speakership was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The California Republican has cemented his hold on the top spot in the House GOP pecking order for a second consecutive term after former Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin retired in 2019.
Although Ms Pelosi was all but certain to win the speakership on Sunday, there was nevertheless some drama on the House floor leading up to the vote.
Ms Pelosi had installed a plexiglass box so members who had recently been diagnosed with Covid could cast their voice votes for speaker in person.
That allowed Wisconsin Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who tested positive for Covid on 28 December, to cast her vote for Ms Pelosi. Ms Moore tweeted on Sunday that she had been medically cleared to go back to work in person.
Last year, the Democratic-controlled House offered members the chance to vote remotely by proxy to mitigate the potential spread of Covid at the Capitol. But when a session of Congress expires every two years, the new body must vote on new rules packages governing procedures in each chamber. To vote on Sunday, members were required to do so in person.
Republicans initially raised objections to the plexiglass setup, saying it was a naked play by Ms Pelosi to keep her hold on the speaker’s gavel while putting members in jeopardy of exposure to others who may be contagious with Covid.
“Pelosi is putting the public’s health at risk to keep herself in power,” Colorado GOP Congressman Ken Buck tweeted on Sunday.
But the attending physician at the Capitol, Dr Brian Monahan, had pre-approved Ms Pelosi’s plan.
“Upon the direction of the Office of the Attending Physician and the House Sergeant at Arms, a secure enclosure has been erected in Gallery 4 of the House Chamber to allow Members who are in quarantine status to fulfill their Constitutional duties,” Dr Monahan said in a statement ahead of Sunday’s vote.
“Under federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), essential workers, in order to ensure continuity of operations of essential functions, are permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19 provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community. The highest possible safeguards have been implemented including separate holding facilities for any Members utilizing Gallery 4. This step will only be necessary until proxy voting resumes as an option for impacted members,” the doctor said.
Earlier in the day, two Republican freshmen — including Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — were denied access to the House floor after refusing to wear masks.
Ms Greene later gained entry to the House floor and voted for Mr McCarthy without a mask before putting one on her chin, covering neither her nose or mouth.