Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful speakers in modern U.S. history, will cede the helm of House Democratic leadership after 20 years and take on an unfamiliar role: Rank-and-file member.
Since she reclaimed the top gavel in 2018, the first woman speaker — whose legislative prowess has powered her party’s agenda under four presidents — planned to give it up after this term. Yet her decision became more complicated, she has said, by the brutal assault of her husband Paul last month.
“I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” Pelosi said to a packed chamber that remained pin-drop silent as members took in her decision.
Then Democrats’ better-than-expected midterm election prompted personal pleas for her to stay from the president and Senate majority leader.
But in a floor speech attended by nearly every member of her Democratic caucus, including plenty of teary allies, Pelosi declared it was time for a “new generation” of leaders. Clad in stark white, the color of suffragists and her hue of choice for critical moments, the California Democrat delivered her farewell speech within a chamber where she has been a part of Washington’s biggest moments for decades.
Recalling her first visit to the Capitol at age six, she name-checked her biggest political inspirations, from Abraham Lincoln to civil rights leader John Lewis, as she touted her “fundamental mission to hold strong to our most treasured democratic ideals.”
She alluded to policy achievements she notched with three presidents while leading the caucus, conspicuously omitting Donald Trump.
Afterward, she received one of a half-dozen standing ovations from her caucus.
Pelosi will retain her House seat, at least for now, as she steers the caucus through tough legislative battles like government funding in the final two months of Democratic power. She is also expected to stay on for at least some of the 118th Congress to maximize pressure on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who will need to corral an extremely narrow majority starting in January.
The decision paves the way for the House’s biggest leadership shakeup in either party since the Republican revolution of 1994. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the current caucus chair, will seek the role of minority leader for the next Congress after months of steadily building support across the caucus.
He is not expected to face a challenger, after POLITICO reported that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) decided to forgo a leadership bid as he instead turns his focus to a potential Senate run.
Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), who was crying as she left Pelosi’s speech, said in between sobs that she was “joyful and sad.” Longtime Pelosi ally Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) recalled texting with his college-aged daughter about Pelosi’s shattering of “glass ceilings.”
Amid that heartfelt appreciation from her caucus, her two long-time deputies — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — also revealed their future plans immediately after her speech.
Clyburn, who remains close to the Biden administration, will seek the elected position of assistant to the minority leader; Hoyer will not seek a leadership position, but will also remain in Congress as a rank-and-file member, according to multiple people familiar with the decision.
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) will seek the No. 2 position below Jeffries, minority whip, while Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), will seek the No. 3 position, which will now be caucus chair, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions. Clyburn’s position will fall outside of that seniority structure.
For most of the last two years, there was little question among Democrats that Pelosi would leave her leadership position after the November elections. She had promised her caucus in 2018 that she would only seek two more terms as leader, part of a bargain she made with her defectors to lock down votes for speaker after the caucus reclaimed the majority.
But some Democrats began questioning in recent days whether she had changed her mind, first after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was attacked in their home last month. After the party’s better-than-expected midterm performances, others began privately — or publicly — telling her to stay, arguing she was their best tactical weapon against a potential Speaker McCarthy.
Regardless, many Democrats have expected that Pelosi would stay in Congress, at least in the short term.
If Pelosi did leave Congress immediately, it would leave a vacancy until her district can hold a special election — a key absence that could give McCarthy more breathing room in his fight to claim the speakership when the full House votes on Jan. 3. His margin of error for that vote, assuming that all Democrats vote for a member of their party, will be between two and five seats.
Whenever Pelosi gives up her seat, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) would need to call a special election within 14 days. Voters would weigh in about four months later at the earliest.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) predicted the caucus would still rely on Pelosi’s wisdom even as a rank and file member.
“She’s always going to be a mentor to us. To me, she stands there just like John Lewis,” he said, getting emotional. “Every time we saw John Lewis and there was a seat next to him, we sat down and we asked him and we listened and we learned and we grew from there. I think Nancy Pelosi is going to be that person for us every minute every day.”
And Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who’s vying with Cárdenas to lead the caucus’ campaign arm next year, underscored the caucus’ faith in Pelosi by contrasting her handling of this Congress’ slim Democratic majority with her GOP counterpart’s struggles to lock in his own support for the speakership.
“She’s the best vote counter and wrangler,” Bera said. “I mean, look at how much Kevin McCarthy is struggling.”
Nicholas Wu, Nancy Vu, Katherine Tully-McManus and Jeremy White contributed to this report.
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