Nancy Pelosi has been narrowly re-elected speaker of the United States House of Representatives as a new Congress took office amid the surging coronavirus pandemic and a plot by some Republicans to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump.
The House voted 216-209 to reinstate Pelosi on Sunday after Democrats lost 11 seats in the November elections to command a narrower 222-212 majority.
Five Democrats chose not to support her – two voted for Democratic legislators who were not running while three others simply voted “present”.
Pelosi, the only woman to have ever served as speaker, has led the House Democrats for 17 years.
“As we are sworn in today, we accept a responsibility as daunting and demanding as any that previous generations of leadership have faced. We begin the new Congress during a time of extraordinary difficulty,” Pelosi said in a floor speech that noted the deaths of more than 350,000 Americans from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now is a time for our nation to heal. Our most urgent priority will continue to be defeating the coronavirus. And defeat it, we will,” the 80-year-old California Democrat added, pledging that further aid would follow the latest $892bn package that Congress passed in December.
The vote took hours, as legislators were required to vote in groups of several dozen due to social-distancing rules imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
There are normally 435 members of the House, but just 427 votes were cast on Sunday as a few congressmen-elect are in quarantine due to COVID-19 and a tight House race in New York has yet to be formally decided.
One congressman-elect from Louisiana, Luke Letlow, died of complications from COVID-19 last week, days before he was due to be sworn in.
In the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence swore in 32 senators on Sunday, administering the oath of office in pairs due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“To say the new Congress convenes at a challenging time would be an understatement,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as the chamber opened.
“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,” the Kentucky Republican added, citing the ongoing roll out of coronavirus vaccine.
“I’d say 2021 looks bright already.”
The official action could be one of the last for McConnell as majority leader, as two runoff elections in January are set to determine which party will control the 100-member chamber.
Republicans currently hold 50 seats and Democrats 48. If Democratic challengers John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock beat Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Democrats will have 50 seats.
Under the US constitution, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote in the chamber once she is sworn in on January 20.
The convening of the Congress comes at a time when the US is more torn than ever, with legislators disputing even basic facts including that Biden won the presidential election.
Multiple state and federal reviews have found no evidence of the sort of widespread fraud Trump claims, but Republican senators and House members plan to challenge the election result when Congress certifies it on Wednesday.
That bid is all-but-assured to fail, as both chambers would need a simple majority vote in favour of throwing out electoral votes to succeed. That appears unlikely with the House currently controlled by Democrats.
The plan also drew criticism on Sunday from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally.
“It appears to be more of a political dodge than an effective remedy,” Graham said in a statement. “I will listen closely. But they have a high bar to clear.”
Meanwhile, four Republican Senators joined a statement declaring “the election is over” and Biden has won.
Pence, who as president of the Senate, presides over the session and declares the winner, is facing growing pressure from Trump’s allies over that ceremonial role.
Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement Saturday that Pence “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections”.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead, eager to partner with Biden on shared priorities, starting with efforts to stem the pandemic and economic crisis. They plan to revisit the failed effort to boost pandemic aid to $2,000 for most people.
“This has been a moment of great challenge in the United States of America filled with trials and tribulations, but help is on the way,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said in an interview.
“America is a resilient nation, filled with resilient people,” he said. “We will continue to rise to the occasion, emerge from this pandemic and continue to march toward our more perfect union.”