Pelosi caps historic run with Zelensky address and a focus on democracy

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put an exclamation point on her historic run as the first woman speaker Wednesday, inviting a revered symbol of democracy to address the last joint session of Congress she’ll preside over with a powerful message: The democracies of the globe stand united.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brought House and Senate lawmakers to their feet nearly 20 times in his tight speech in the House chamber Wednesday evening, ahead of an eventual vote on an additional $45 billion in aid to protect Ukraine from the continuing Russian onslaught.

“Against all odds, and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Zelensky said to applause.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a Ukrainian flag to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a Ukrainian flag to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during his address to Congress on Wednesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

But before Zelensky took the dais of the House, Pelosi gave him a tour of the Capitol, which almost two years earlier was the site of an unprecedented attack to subvert the 2020 election. She walked Zelensky, dressed in his trademark olive-green military garb, through the marble halls of what Pelosi has long dubbed the “Temple of Democracy.”

“I was telling the president [Zelensky] earlier that my father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a member of Congress when Winston Churchill came here in 1941, the day after Christmas, within a week and 81 years of today,” Pelosi said in a press conference shortly before Zelensky’s speech. “He made the case calling upon America to help fight tyranny in Europe, he said at that time we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only the hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land. That is exactly what the people of Ukraine are doing.”

Her comment brings her long career in politics full circle, hearkening back to her upbringing in Baltimore, where she learned the nuts and bolts of politics more from her mother, Annunciata, who ran the family machine with Pelosi’s father, then the mayor of Baltimore. At that time, decades ago, women rarely held elected office and were largely kept from the spotlight.

On Wednesday, with just days left in her tenure as speaker — she will stay on as a representative in the next Congress but has passed the torch to a new generation of Democratic leaders — Pelosi capped a decades-long run leading House Democrats with a clear message: Democracy must be protected.

Zelensky, flanked by Pelosi, stands at a podium in a Capitol hallway.
Zelensky and Pelosi at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

It also capped a three-day run of wins for Pelosi, most of them against former President Donald Trump, with whom she was at odds during his administration.

She started the week with the House select committee on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, which she put together 18 months ago, voting for the first time in history to make criminal referrals against a former president who sought to undermine a fundamental principle of American democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. The committee members cast their vote from the recently named Speaker Nancy Pelosi Caucus Room.

The next day, Tuesday, a committee packed with her lieutenants and longtime allies voted to release Trump’s taxes after six years of battling with him in the courts.

And on Wednesday she held what will likely be her last joint session of Congress, welcoming Zelensky, who delivered his message denouncing tyranny. And almost everyone in the chamber, save for a few far-right stalwarts, stood and applauded vociferously throughout.

Pelosi receives a peck on the cheek from Zelensky.
Zelensky and Pelosi as he presents a Ukrainian flag given to him by defenders of Bakhmut, an embattled city in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

House Republicans, who are set to take control of the chamber on Jan. 3, largely and enthusiastically applauded Zelensky’s declarations that the democracies of the world must stand together against the “terrorist state” of Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s control.

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is waging an internal battle inside his own party to win the speaker’s gavel in a few weeks, was often slow to rise during standing ovations and returned to his seat earlier than most other lawmakers, often with his lips pursed and a serious look on his face — particularly when Zelensky thanked Congress for the billions of dollars in aid sent to his country.

The fight over spending for Ukraine will likely be a flash point in the new Congress as Republicans look to divert more funds to priorities like stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern border.

But Pelosi appeared ebullient through all of it. And at the end of Zelensky’s address, as he turned around and unfurled a Ukrainian flag to hand to Pelosi, the departing speaker leaned across the rostrum and they gave each other a peck on the cheek.