House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reassembled her office, situated at the center of the Capitol, almost exactly as it was 12 years ago when she first took charge.
Next to the fireplace are the same four white chairs set in a circle, a small mahogany table in the middle. And Pelosi (D-Calif.) has reclaimed the same seat that she ruled from in her first historic run as speaker. It’s the corner seat with the back facing the door, giving her a panoramic view of the room and the window looking down the Mall.
No one else sits in Pelosi’s chair — no one.
From world leaders to wavering lawmakers ahead of big votes, Pelosi would guide them off to one of the other three chairs so she could oversee the meeting.
It’s all part of the effort to convey a return to normalcy, reclaiming the speaker’s gavel that Pelosi had to hand over to Republicans eight years ago. She then fought through four long elections to win it back — the first person in the 230-year history of the House to go eight years between stints as speaker.
As she took the oath of office Thursday, Pelosi re-created the famous scene of January 2007 by again inviting the young children of lawmakers onto the dais. She took over again as the leading Democrat up against an unpopular Republican president.
But even her closest allies know this time is so much different.
“The way her office is decorated and arranged may be the only thing that is similar between now and then,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close ally of 20 years, said before Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony.
The biggest change comes from the person at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In early 2007, then-President George W. Bush congratulated Pelosi before a nationally televised audience. He called it an honor to be “the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madame Speaker.”
They fought bitterly over the Iraq War and anti-terrorism techniques, but Bush and Pelosi — both children of powerful politicians — maintained a public show of respect during her first two years as speaker (his last two as president). It led to several compromises on domestic issues and allowed them to work hand in hand during the 2008 financial crisis.
Trump hosted Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Oval Office three weeks ago, their first public meeting in more than a year. Trump began the meeting without congratulating her on the midterm victory and repeatedly addressed her as “Nancy.” He angered her by questioning whether she would have enough support to win Thursday’s speaker vote.
“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring,” Pelosi retorted.
In her address Thursday, Pelosi never mentioned Trump by name, only referring to the divisive nature of the past two years.
“We renew the great American experiment,” Pelosi said, signaling the transfer in power would lead to a “unifying” 116th Congress.
A few hours later, Trump made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room, beginning with some congratulations for Pelosi. But he also appeared with border agents and decried the Pelosi-led opposition to building a multibillion-dollar wall along the southwest border — a standoff that has led to a partial shutdown of government agencies for the past two weeks.
Democrats saw the move as Trump’s attempt to cut into Pelosi’s moment, part of Trump’s unpredictability that drives the House speaker to sometimes confess she lacks respect for the president.
“The difference now between George W. Bush and . . .” Schakowsky said, pausing and refraining from even saying Trump’s name. “It’s hard to even plan. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
She wore an orange “NANCY” button on her coat jacket, the same one that was handed out on the House floor 12 years ago.
But the vast majority of Democrats won office after Pelosi surrendered the gavel, so Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) handed out dozens of new blue buttons that read “MADAME SPEAKER.”
When Kennedy handed one to Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), signs of Pelosi’s internal battles appeared. Rice had led a centrist rebellion that wanted to block Pelosi even after the historic 40-seat gain thrust Democrats back into the House majority in November’s midterms.
Over the next six weeks, Pelosi, 78, ground down her opponents and in a final compromise agreed she would not serve more than four more years as speaker.
Rice posed for a picture with the pin but never put it on.
She was one of 15 Democrats who declined to vote for Pelosi, including three who voted present and 11 who were freshmen who flipped previously GOP-held seats.
That left Pelosi with 220 votes for the gavel, a handful to spare, but it once again demonstrated that some lawmakers worry about her unpopular image in swing districts.
By Wednesday, Pelosi faced a rebellion on her left. A few prominent liberals opposed a budgetary proposal, arguing that it would impose constraints that could hamstring ambitious legislation on health care and infrastructure.
When she first became speaker, Pelosi hailed unquestionably from the liberal movement. Seizing the moment in 2002, she bucked more senior Democratic leaders and led the opposition to the Iraq War resolution.
It passed, but a majority of House Democrats sided with Pelosi, and within months they voted her to be minority leader.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, home to the most liberal Democrats, almost always fell in line whenever Speaker Pelosi told them it was time to vote. They wanted a publicly funded option as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and over long negotiations by her fireplace or in the long conference table next door, Pelosi eventually told them the votes were not there.
They backed the legislation.
But in today’s politics, such compromises might face more revolt. And now, unlike any other time in the past, a group of ambitious young Democrats have seats at the leadership table and are angling for even more power, wondering which one will get to succeed Pelosi.
As 3 p.m. approached Thursday, the pageantry ended and it was time to get down to business. Pelosi instructed a deputy to start moving ahead with the first round of legislation.
“The House will come to order,” Pelosi said.