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Pelosi opts to step down as Democratic leader

She plans to remain in House but will leave leadership post held since 2002

Speaker Nancy Pelosi hugs Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on the House floor Thursday after announcing she is stepping down from her leadership position.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi hugs Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on the House floor Thursday after announcing she is stepping down from her leadership position. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that she will not run for another term as Democratic leader, adhering to a self-imposed term-limit pledge she made four years ago.

“With great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” the California Democrat said in a speech from the House floor. She said she plans to remain a member of the House. 

Her current deputies, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, announced afterward they would not run for one of the top three leadership posts, clearing the way for a younger leadership team in the next Congress.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, long considered Pelosi’s heir apparent, has seemingly cleared the field of any potential challengers even before he officially announces a run for minority leader. Hoyer, who once had aspirations for the top job, announced he will step aside from leadership altogether and endorsed Jeffries. 

Assistant Speaker Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts is expected to run for minority whip, replacing Hoyer as the No. 2. 

Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar of California is expected to run to replace Jeffries as caucus chair, which, according to a source familiar, is expected to be moved up to the No. 3 ranking leadership slot when Democrats are in the minority ahead of assistant Democratic leader. 

Fellow House Democrats said Thursday they expected Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar to be unchallenged for the top three posts, and many endorsed their bids ahead of official announcements that the trio seemed to want to keep spaced out from celebrations of Pelosi’s reign.

“We’ll communicate to our colleagues when it’s right,” Aguilar said. 

Punchbowl News reported that Clyburn, currently the No. 3 ranking leader, is expected to run for assistant Democratic leader, which will be moved to the No. 4 ranking spot in the minority. Pelosi created the assistant leader position — referred to as assistant speaker when Democrats are in the majority — for Clyburn in 2010 to avoid a messy race between him and Hoyer for whip. Clyburn has yet to address his plans publicly but said in a statement he looked forward to “doing whatever I can to assist our new generation of Democratic Leaders which I hope to be Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar.”

The Democratic Caucus, which would need to vote to amend its rules to accommodate the anticipated changes in leadership rankings, is scheduled to hold its leadership elections on Nov. 30. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives at the Capitol on Thursday before announcing she would not seek reelection as Democratic leader in the next Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats gather for Pelosi

More than half of the Democratic Caucus, including the current and potential future leadership team, gathered in the chamber to listen to Pelosi’s announcement early Thursday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and former House member who said this week that he’d love to see Pelosi run for leader again, also attended. 

Democrats gave Pelosi numerous standing ovations during her speech and afterward filed down to the well of the House to speak to her, many embracing her in loving hugs. 

The 82-year-old Pelosi has served in Congress since 1987 and led House Democrats since 2002. She was minority leader for four years until Democrats flipped the House and she was elected the first female speaker in 2007. 

Pelosi led Democrats in passing major legislation after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, including the signature 2010 health care law she touts as one of her proudest accomplishments. But the initial unpopularity of that law was among the reasons Republicans took back the House later in 2010, relegating Pelosi and Democrats to the minority for eight years. 

Democrats won the majority back in 2018 in large part because of their campaign messaging on lowering health care and prescription drug costs, and Pelosi was elected speaker again. But she initially faced pushback from Democrats who wanted to see new leaders. Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have led the caucus for years. 

To secure the gavel, Pelosi promised those anxious Democrats she would limit herself to two more terms as Democratic leader, which means she was expected to step down at the end of this year. 

On Thursday she honored that commitment.

“For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect,” she said in her speech.

Pelosi told reporters she took two versions of her speech home when she left the Capitol on Wednesday evening but returned Thursday morning with one, indicating she made her final decision in the interim. 

Leaving the floor after her speech, Pelosi declined to say who she would like to succeed her as leader, noting that would be up to the caucus to decide.  

Hoyer said in a statement announcing his plans to step aside that it was “time for a new generation of leaders.” 

“Very frankly, I think I could be elected; that was not the issue,” he later told reporters. “But I think it’s time.”

‘They work so well together’

While Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are all in their 80s, Jeffries is 52, Clark is 59 and Aguilar is 43.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said she expects the younger trio to run for the top three posts unchallenged. 

“What we’re excited about is that they work so well together, and I think that’s a real strength for each of them,” she said. “They bring different traits to the table, to the leadership table. They support each other, and they reflect the diversity of our country and our caucus.”

Democrats leaving the regular caucus whip meeting Thursday morning, which Pelosi did not attend, said they had no idea what Pelosi would do. But the consensus was if she had decided to run for another term as leader, she would undoubtedly have had the majority of the caucus’ support, which is all she would need to win a minority leader race. 

“There’s no question about it in my mind,” California Rep. Mark Takano said. “I think those who are looking to assume leadership are highly deferential to what she wants to do. … She’s been a historic, transformational speaker, the most effective speaker, I think, in American history.”

Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline said Democrats overperformed midterm election expectations in large part because of Pelosi’s leadership. Republicans officially secured the House majority Wednesday evening, with the current tally of races The Associated Press has called at 218-211.

Cicilline said Pelosi left “a legacy of extraordinary achievement for the American people” and that he would support Jeffries as her successor.  “He has demonstrated tremendous talent and an ability to really listen to the members of the caucus,” Cicilline said.

New York Rep. Gregory W. Meeks likewise said he’d back Jeffries, citing his ability, along with that of Pelosi, to unify what he says is the most diverse Democratic caucus ever in terms of ethnicity and race. He added that Jeffries has the communication skills necessary to speak to Democrats’ priorities, whether he’s addressing the caucus or the public. 

“I think that he’s able to excite Democrats and independents and get a job done,” Meeks said, predicting Jeffries would have enough support to win a majority vote of the caucus.

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