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Parsing Pelosi: What’s next for Democratic leader?

California Democrat previously said current term will be her last as leader

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announces the House voted to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to address gun violence on June 24.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announces the House voted to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to address gun violence on June 24. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised four years ago that she wouldn’t run for another term as Democratic leader after the 2022 midterm elections. That hasn’t stopped some of her colleagues from encouraging the California Democrat to do so, or her from considering it.

Pelosi had said she won’t make a decision on whether to run for another term in leadership until more House races are settled; The Associated Press called the majority for Republicans on Wednesday evening, although it will be a narrow one. A few hours later, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted that the speaker will address her colleagues Thursday to announce her future plans.

No one knows what Pelosi will decide, but there’s overwhelming consensus that whatever she wants to do, most House Democrats will support it. 

“I think everybody’s going to give her a wide berth because she’s earned it,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. “Nobody works harder than she does. It’s just extraordinary.”

Pelosi has offered a few public hints at what she’s thinking and ruled out one option – immediately retiring from Congress, which would leave her seat open until a special election and give the GOP an extra one-seat advantage in the interim.

“I don’t have any plans to step away from Congress,” she said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Pelosi has also said in interviews with CNN that the recent attack on her husband, Paul Pelosi, will influence her decision. An assailant broke into Pelosi’s San Francisco home looking for her and instead found her husband and beat him with a hammer. Speaker Pelosi said her husband, who had surgery to repair a skull fracture, is progressing in his recovery but it will be a “long haul.” 

Since Pelosi has made clear that her decision won’t be to retire and return home full time, the influence the attack has had appears to be more that she doesn’t want to be forced out of power, or look like she has been, because of threats against her and her family. 

Asked Sunday by CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” if she was emboldened and felt more of a responsibility to stay after the attack, Pelosi didn’t directly say.

“The fact is, any decision to run is about family and also my colleagues,” the speaker said. 

Pelosi said Democrats should “go forward in a very unified way” as they prepare for the next Congress and the 2024 election cycle, when the stakes are high because it’s a presidential year.

One consideration there is that Pelosi is one of her party’s most prolific fundraisers. And while any Democrat who replaces her would likely raise big bucks too, it takes time to build a massive donor network that would rival the one she has cultivated over decades.

Decision by Nov. 30 

Pelosi said she will make a decision before the Democratic Caucus holds its leadership elections Nov. 30. 

Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, who many consider the heir apparent to Pelosi should she not run for leader, said Tuesday that there’s no discussion of delaying the elections even as Pelosi and others are declining to say what they will do until more House races are called. 

“We are at a point in time where the focus should continue to be on making sure that every single vote is counted,” Jeffries said.

While some Democrats have launched bids for lower-level leadership positions, anyone eyeing a top post is waiting to see what Pelosi does while quietly mobilizing for supporters in case she decides to step aside. 

But some Democrats ready to transition to the next generation of leaders are encouraging Jeffries not to wait on Pelosi and declare a bid for leader, according to multiple sources who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive caucus dynamics. 

In various interviews over the years, Pelosi has talked about not waiting her turn when she wanted to serve in caucus leadership and advising others that power is sought, not given. 

Pelosi said in the CNN interview that Democrats are campaigning for leadership “and that’s a beautiful thing.” Although she’s not asked anything of her members in regard to leadership, many are asking her to run again, she said. 

Even if she does not remain Democratic leader, Pelosi acknowledged, “there are all kinds of ways to exert influence.”

That comment offered a hint of what may be the perfect compromise. Pelosi could uphold her commitment to not seek the top leadership post again, while retaining power in some other way. 

The Democratic Caucus, and Pelosi in particular, have a history of finding clever solutions for members to be part of an ever expanding decision-making circle.

Sometimes that’s been adding new leadership roles, like the assistant Democratic leader (called assistant speaker when Democrats are in the majority) post that Pelosi created in 2010 for James E. Clyburn to avoid a messy race for minority whip between he and Steny H. Hoyer

Since then, Hoyer and Clyburn have stayed loyal to Pelosi in the No. 2 and 3 roles (currently the majority leader and whip) and never challenged her for the top spot. Hoyer is not announcing his plans for leadership yet, but based on past comments is likely to be interested in running for Democratic leader if there’s an opening. 

Clyburn declined in a CNN interview to say whether he’d support Jeffries or Hoyer for leader if Pelosi steps aside — but noted he won’t be a contender. 

“I have said to both of them that I will not pursue the position of leader of our party,” he said.

In smaller Democratic power circles, like ideological caucuses, the New Democrat Coalition and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, leaders who’ve stepped aside have been given “emeritus” titles and remain involved in leadership decisions.

‘Space to make a decision’

Many Democrats, when asked whether Pelosi should run for leader again or if they’d like to see someone new, carefully avoid taking a position while giving Pelosi deference to come to whatever decision she wants. 

“I adore Speaker Pelosi. She has been the greatest leader of our generation,” Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar said. “Her husband has just suffered an almost deadly attack. And I believe she deserves the space to make a decision.”

However, a few Democrats are not shy about their desire for new leadership. 

Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who has not supported Pelosi in her past two speaker elections, said Wednesday that she still wants to see new caucus leadership. 

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips has supported Pelosi in the past but wants all longtime Democratic leaders “from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi to Steny Hoyer to Jim Clyburn” to move aside for the next generation. 

“The Democratic Party culture of precluding rising generations from participating is becoming a liability, plain and simple,” he said. “And if you don’t create space and place for members to participate, you’re gonna lose them.”

Fellow Minnesota Democrat Angie Craig agrees. 

“We’ve got to rethink inside the caucus how we approach leadership and opportunity,” she said. “You see a lot of folks who leave the House caucus and run for statewide office. One of the reasons is there’s not a lot of opportunity to advance and gain experience and, you know, people get restless.”

One of the first questions Craig asks Democrats who call her campaigning for leadership positions is whether they would support term limits for committee chairs. While focused on that, she also supports term limits for party leadership and members of Congress more generally. 

“That, to me, is a signal of good leadership, is that you’re developing the next generation of talent,” she said.

Asked if Pelosi should honor her previous term-limit pledge, Craig said, “I think we all should stick to our word. But we’ll see what happens here.”

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