Nancy Pelosi, the only woman who served as the US speaker, was narrowly re-elected to the position on Sunday in a deeply divided new congress convened in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Pelosi, 80, faced intimidation when five Democrats fired and voted “present” or for someone else during the vote.
But the woman who is third in a row to the presidency secured her fourth – and perhaps last – term without a row as a house speaker by earning 216 votes to 209 for Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
In a symbolic gesture that ushered in the 117th Congress, McCarthy formally handed over the speaker’s club to Pelosi, who took it up in triumph as Democrats cheered and applauded.
“We are starting the new Congress in a time of extraordinary difficulty,” Pelosi told the House, noting the toll of 350,000 dead and 20 million infected with Covid-19.
“Our most urgent priority will continue to be to defeat the coronavirus,” said a masked Pelosi. “And defeat that we will do.”
The vote took hours, as lawmakers had to vote in groups of several dozen because of rules on social distancing introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelosi has been Trump’s main nemesis in Congress, and the two have clashed bitterly for the past two years, especially when she made accusations against the president.
Trump was indicted in December 2019, but the Senate acquitted him in early 2020. His successor, Joe Biden, will take office on January 20.
With Pelosi encrypting to keep her post, there were a handful of progressive lawmakers and select members who have been critical of her leadership but finally voted for her on Sunday.
Among them were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of Washington’s most prominent Democrats, and incumbent Cori Bush, the first African-American woman to represent Missouri in Congress.
There are normally 435 members in the House, but only 427 votes were cast on Sunday as a few elected members of Congress are quarantined due to Covid-19 and a tight race in New York has not yet been formally decided.
An elected Louisiana congressman, Luke Letlow, died of complications from Covid-19 last week, days before he was to be sworn in.
It leaves Democrats one of the thinnest house moratoriums in two decades, 222 to 211, with two vacancies, as they navigate the remaining few weeks of Trump and enter Biden’s presidency.
On a day that was anything but conventional, Republican Chip Roy suspended the admission process to ask that the delegations from the six swing states where Trump has questioned the election results not be put on Sunday as House members.
Pelosi abstained from the effort by holding a vote affirming her right to swear in all members.