House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reelected to lead the chamber as the 117th Congress convened Sunday, with the California Democrat set to shepherd her party through a new Congress with the slimmest majority in years.
Members cast their votes for speaker ahead of their swearing in Sunday evening, with Pelosi earning support from 216 Democrats and clearing the threshold of 214 to secure the House's top position. The proceedings at the Capitol were marked by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to a changing of procedures to ensure the new Congress could gather safely.
Two Democrats — Jared Golden of Maine and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania — cast votes for Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, respectively. Three Democratic House member voted "present." Notably, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and other members of "The Squad" backed Pelosi in her bid for the speakership. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy won 209 votes from Republicans.
In remarks following her election to a fourth term as speaker, Pelosi said the chamber's "most urgent priority" will be defeating the coronavirus pandemic and said Congress "must do more to recognize" the workers on the frontlines of the crisis.
"They make our lives possible at the state and local level, and will facilitate the distribution of the vaccine. We owe them more," she said. "Many of our essential workers are from communities of color and low-wealth communities which have been devastatingly and disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. They have been there for us, and we must be there for them."
Pelosi said the new Congress must "pursue justice" as it addresses the disparities the pandemic has exposed, and challenged House members to live up to the pledge to provide justice for all.
"In all that we do, let us be for the people – recognizing the beautiful diversity of America, so that no one is left out or left behind," she said. "We do so, guided by the vision of our founders, the sacrifice of our military and their families and the aspirations that we all have for the children."
The new session comes days before lawmakers will meet to count the votes of the Electoral College and finalize the presidential election results. Nearly a dozen GOP senators said Saturday that they plan to object to the results on Wednesday, citing false claims of widespread voter fraud pushed by President Trump and his allies.
Ahead of Sunday's proceedings, the House sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol attending physician sent guidelines to new and returning House members, according to Roll Call. The traditional quorum call, swearing-in of new members and speaker election is being done in seven groups, significantly lengthening the day's events.
The House convened at noon, with the election of a new speaker as the first order of business. Members will be sworn in following the election, which could stretch into Sunday night. Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, nominated Pelosi for speaker, calling her a "resilient leader."
"Nancy Pelosi believes that our sacred mission is to continue America's long, necessary and majestic march toward a more perfect union," he said in a speech on the House floor before the vote kicked off.
In a striking symbol of how the virus complicated proceedings, a special section of the House chamber was enclosed in plexiglass so three lawmakers who are in "quarantine status" would be able to vote. Dr. Brian Monahan, Congress' attending physician, said the "highest possible safeguards have been implemented including separate, enhanced ventilation in this space and separate holding facilities for any Members utilizing" the separate space. Members using the space were required to have tested negative for the virus.
The special accommodations were also a reflection of the razor-thin margin in the vote for speaker. Democrats will start the 117th Congress with 222 members, just four over the 218 threshold needed for a majority, with one race in New York still undecided.
Proxy voting, which allowed for members to cast votes while not physically present at the Capitol, lapsed with the end of the last Congress. The new House will have to vote on whether to extend proxy voting. This means that anyone who is absent on Sunday will not be able to cast a vote in the speaker election.
In the Senate, which also convened at noon for the start of the 117th Congress, Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office to pairs of new and reelected members, offering elbow bumps to each.
"To say the 117th Congress convenes at a challenging time would indeed be an understatement," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after members were sworn in. "From political division to a deadly pandemic to adversaries around the world, the hurdles before us are many and they are serious. But there is also plenty of reason for hope. An optimistic, can-do spirit has been one of our country's most distinctive calling cards since our very earliest days, and with safe and effective vaccines rolling out across our nation every day, I'd say 2021 looks bright already."
The Senate is beginning its new session with Republicans holding a slim majority, but whether the GOP retains control will be determined by a pair of runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday.
Ahead of the start of Sunday's proceedings, Pelosi noted the challenges the new Congress will face as it seeks to address the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic as well as the ongoing public health crisis, and thanked the Democratic caucus for nominating her to lead the House for another term.
"I am confident that the speaker's election today will show a united Democratic caucus ready to meet the challenges ahead, and that we are prepared to set our country on a new course, starting with the Electoral College meeting on Wednesday," she said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues.
The House and the Senate will meet again on January 6 to count Electoral College votes and reaffirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory.
First published on January 2, 2021 / 10:14 AM
© 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.