WASHINGTON — House Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their leader Wednesday, ratifying the status quo in a changing Washington despite widespread frustration over the party’s direction.
That disenchantment manifested itself in 63 lawmakers supporting Pelosi’s opponent, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, in the secret-ballot vote. That was by far the largest defection Pelosi has suffered since she began leading House Democrats in 2002.
Still, the California lawmaker had declared ahead of time that more than two-thirds of the caucus was supporting her, and she won almost exactly two-thirds with 134 votes. It was a testament to her vote-counting skills and to her ability to hang onto power even in dark days for Democrats, as they confront a capital that will be fully controlled by the GOP next year.
Supporters said the 76-year-old Pelosi was their best bet to confront a President Donald Trump from a defensive crouch in the minority after Democrats’ picked up only a half-dozen seats in the House, far fewer than anticipated. Republicans are on track to hold at least 240 seats in the House next year, while Democrats will have 194.
Pelosi herself, appearing elated after her victory, pledged that Democrats have won elections before and would do so again, even though they’ve been in the minority in the House since 2010.
“I have a special spring in my step today because this opportunity is a special one, to lead the House Democrats, bring everyone together as we go forward,” Pelosi said.
Of Trump, she said: “Where we can engage, we will. Where we need to oppose, we will.”
And Pelosi disputed the suggestion that she might be concerned about the defections she suffered. “They weren’t defections, I had two-thirds of the vote,” Pelosi said, repeating “two-thirds, two-thirds” to a group of assembled reporters.
For their part, Ryan and his backers insisted after the vote that they had won a victory in sending a message to Pelosi about the significant desire for change among House Democrats.
“Somebody had to do something,” said Ryan, a seven-term lawmaker who before now had been largely a back-bencher. “Our prospects have improved just because of this conversation.”
Yet Democrats’ marginalized status was evident as Ryan struggled to answer a question about who would lead the party forward, before concluding: “We’re all going to participate in leading the party.”
Leadership elections were originally scheduled to be held before Thanksgiving but were delayed to give Democrats more time to discuss and process the election results and consider a path forward.
Pelosi’s victory came only after she promised some changes to assuage concerns in her caucus, including adding a member of the freshmen class to her leadership team and creating a handful of other titled positions. But her proposals do little to ensure new blood at the very top or change the seniority system that has key committees led by lawmakers in their 80s at a moment when the party needs to be defending President Barack Obama’s health care law and other initiatives.
Pelosi’s top two lieutenants who’ve served by her side for years were also re-elected Wednesday, both by acclimation. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, 77, will continue to serve as Democratic whip, and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, 76, will continue in the No. 3 spot as assistant leader.
“We need someone who is battle-tested,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., told fellow Democrats in nominating Pelosi. “We need our leader to be seasoned, tough.”
But some House Democrats did not hide their disappointment at the outcome.
“I am deeply disappointed today as the House Democratic Caucus has decided to double down on its failed strategy of recent years,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. “It is obvious the current strategy doesn’t work; millions of Americans don’t feel that our party represents them anymore and they’ve said so, loudly, in multiple elections.