Peltola sees House speaker impasse as a symptom of bigger divisions

woman in fur boots on marble stairs
Rep. Mary Peltola was the only member of Congress wearing a kuspuk on the first day of the 2023 session. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House, Rep. Mary Peltola, was to be sworn in for a full term in Congress on Tuesday, but nothing can happen in the House until the members elect a speaker.

That didn’t happen. All a majority could agree on was to adjourn and try again Wednesday.

Peltola, a Democrat, sees it as a sign of the times.

“It shows how divided, even within a party, we are as Americans,” she said just off the House floor. “And that’s a concern.”

The ball is in the Republican court. They have a slim majority, but 20 hard-right Republicans voted for someone other than front-runner Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. That blocks him from the speaker’s chair and prevents all other members from taking their oath.

Peltola wasn’t sure at that moment — at the start of a new Congress and still unsworn — whether she was a member of Congress or not.

“That is a really good question,” she said. “I think the incumbents must be. But I don’t know. I think that is a question for a parliamentarian.”

Whatever the legal answer, she was wearing a pin signifying her membership in the 118th Congress. Peltola took a seat in the back of the House Chamber and, like all Democrats, just kept voting for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Jeffries didn’t have a majority either. So, after three rounds of voting the first day of the new Congress ended in a stalemate. 

It’s been more than a century since a vote for speaker took more than one round.

“This is historic,” Peltola said, “because even 100 years ago, it went to two rounds, and then they adjourned. And this I believe can go as many rounds as people can take.”

She figures it’ll eventually end when Republicans iron out their differences and elect a speaker.

Peltola, in a black kuspuk and Yup’ik-style fur boots, was in demand in the Capitol hallways. A delegation of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians stopped her to network. A national reporter admired her boots and asked whether Peltola thinks Democrats would end the stalemate by voting for a Republican speaker.

“I’m sticking with the caucus, at this point,” she said.

A pair of Hakeem Jeffries staffers were delighted to bump into her. They pumped her hand and congratulated her. Repeatedly. They invited her to a reception room near the House Chamber where she could fuel up with mini quiches and other finger food. Yes, they said, by all means bring your kids.

The kids! She hadn’t seen them in hours. Five of them had come to Washington to watch their mom be sworn in. Instead, they were idling in Peltola’s office, two of them in U.S. Coast Guard uniforms.

She needn’t have worried. At her new office, in the Cannon building across the street from the Capitol, spirits were high. The kids — who range in age from teen to adult — were yucking it up with each other, the staff and a stream of well-wishers.

Peltola’s chief of staff, Alex Ortiz, said he’s excited to have new staffers on board, including Elizabeth Othmer as the new legislative director and counsel. Othmer, from New Mexico, is among three new hires that aren’t from Alaska.

Ortiz said it’s often hard to find Alaskans, who love their state, willing to relocate to Washington, D.C. He said the new staffers have their own assets.

“The non-Alaskans we’ve hired are really, really experts on Capitol Hill and how the House works,” he said. They know “House policy and procedure and have a lot of policy expertise from their work in other congressional offices.”

And, Ortiz notes, Peltola still has staffers — including himself — who are Alaskans and worked for other members of the Alaska delegation.

On the other side of the Capitol, the first day in the Senate went entirely to plan. Sen. Lisa Murkowski took the oath of office for the fifth time. She was accompanied to the well of the Senate by her father, former Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski, as well as Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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