U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, Alaska’s lone representative in the U.S. House, returned to Congress this week for the first time since her husband Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr. died last month in a plane crash.
Peltola, a Democrat, was welcomed back to the chamber with a bipartisan standing ovation amid gridlock over who will lead the House.
“The news cycle moves fast, and Congress seems dysfunctional. But there is still empathy. There is still bipartisanship. Amidst it all, I’m encouraged by the small things,” Peltola wrote in a social media post responding to the gesture of welcome she received from her colleagues after she cast her first vote since the unexpected death of her husband.
Peltola, who traveled to Alaska to grieve the loss of her husband together with their children, said that when Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted earlier this month amid opposition to his leadership from right-wing Republicans, she decided to return to work.
The decision came “the minute there was a motion to vacate the speaker’s office,” she said in an interview Thursday. That motion was made by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a far-right Republican from Florida.
“I don’t get the feeling of fear of missing out very often, but I certainly felt it at that time,” said Peltola.
She said her husband, who continued to spend most of his time in Alaska after she was elected last year, was in D.C. in January when McCarthy was finally chosen to serve as speaker after a historic 15 rounds of voting.
“Buzzy really did have a front-row seat to the 15 votes and some of the action that happened on the floor, and I had this feeling that he would want to be here. He would of course want me to be here working on behalf of Alaskans,” said Peltola. “So the moment that Matt Gaetz made the motion to vacate the speakership, I started looking at plane tickets and figuring out how to get back here as soon as I could.”
Amid ongoing disagreement among Republicans over who should serve as speaker, Peltola has repeatedly suggested that moderate lawmakers from both parties could work together, bypassing gridlock caused by division between uncompromising, right-wing members of the Republican Party, and their more moderate colleagues.
“The way I see it, our country is very detrimentally divided, not only among the two parties, but within party there is a deep divide,” said Peltola, adding that there are some “members of the Republican conference who are willing and ready and desiring to work with any American to get back on track.”
“Talking with some of my Republican colleagues, there is such an aversion by some members of their conference to working with Democrats, and this perception that Democrats are our enemies,” said Peltola. “I think it’s so important, especially now with the international conflicts that we’re seeing, that Americans really take a look at ourselves and realize we have to see each other as fellow countrymen and not as enemies. And I think the best place to start with that message is in the U.S. Congress.”
For years, a similar dynamic has played out in the Alaska Legislature, where disagreements within the Republican caucus have led to the creation of bipartisan majorities at times in the House and Senate.
Peltola said she has asked her Republican colleagues if a bipartisan coalition could form to lead the U.S. House. The response was: “after some more bloodshed.”
“Of course, that’s not literal, but after more fighting goes on amongst them, and maybe more pressure in terms of deadlines,” said Peltola.
“I am hopeful that members of their conference become more open to working with Democrats, and I know many of my Democratic colleagues are interested in finding a solution to this,” she said.
But conversations on the specifics of a bipartisan coalition have not yet happened openly.
“If there are conversations, they’ve not happened out loud or in public. They are very, very discreet and early conversations, but I am very hopeful that there are conversations going on and I believe there are,” said Peltola.
An interim plan to empower the speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-North Carolina, to oversee House votes, is “a good stopgap measure,” said Peltola.
“I think it’s a good short-term fix,” she said. That’s because the clock is ticking until the federal government again faces the prospect of a shutdown. Without further action, a shutdown would happen in less than a month.
Peltola said she has “a lot of concerns” about the implications of the ongoing battle over the speakership, given the looming risk of a shutdown, including the prospect of military members and other federal employees going without a paycheck, and delays in services like Medicare, Social Security and food aid.
In the meantime, Peltola said she is continuing to work with the Biden administration on Alaska priorities, including a possible liquefied natural gas project.
Peltola is scheduled to return to Alaska for an appearance Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage.