In an age in which national parties have less clout than ever, being and becoming a congressional leader are both very difficult tasks. So the chaos on view this week among House Republicans — with as many as 21 of 222 GOP members blocking the selection of a new speaker and preventing the House from starting its new session — can be seen as a testament to the skills of the last speaker.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., faced some headaches, such as a 2018 takeover of her office by climate activists including then-Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But they never turned into the sort of migraines now afflicting California House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who seemingly can't get the 218 votes he needs to become speaker in his ninth term in Congress. After becoming the first and so far only female leader of the House in 2007, the daughter of a famous Baltimore mayor added to her history by doing a remarkable job of keeping House Democrats united and able to achieve legislative landmarks, such as the 2010 enactment of the Affordable Care Act and the passage in December of the Respect for Marriage Act, which preserved same-sex marriages after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas went public with his opposition.
Pelosi mostly avoided intraparty feuds amid tumultuous and even toxic national politics. It was striking to see the Republican who preceded her as speaker — Ohio Rep. John Boehner — appear at a tribute to Pelosi last month in which he declared that "no other speaker of the House in the modern era, Republican or Democrat, has wielded the gavel with such authority or such consistent results." Pelosi's wins preceded her party's and the nation's. Facing demands and defections in 2018, with her own reelection as speaker uncertain, she pledged to limit herself to two more terms, luring hesitant Democrats back to her side and never enduring the public humiliation McCarthy faces now. In so doing, she showed skills her successor will envy this year.
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