Nancy Pelosi, the only woman to ever be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, announced Thursday that she would remain in Congress as Republicans take control of the chamber in January, but not seek a Democratic leadership position, ending her two-decade run as the party’s leader.
In an emotional 15-minute speech on the House floor, the 82-year-old Pelosi recalled the highlights of her 35 years in the House, including eight as speaker, but said, “Now we must move boldly into the future. The hour has come for a new generation” to lead the Democratic caucus.
She has long been a cherished figure among her fellow Democrats but reviled and disparaged by many Republicans who intensely dislike her progressive political views characteristic of what many say is the most liberal city in America, San Francisco, California, which she represents in the House.
Democrats in the House chamber cheered as she recalled the increase in the number of Democratic women in the House, from 12 in 1987 when she first became a House member to more than 90 today, and the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of her party’s caucus.
But Democrats and Republicans alike gave her a standing ovation when she paid tribute to her husband, Paul Pelosi, still recovering at their home in San Francisco after an intruder, specifically asking where she was, recently broke into their home and then bashed his head with a hammer, fracturing his skull. Nancy Pelosi was in Washington at the time of the post-midnight attack; the suspect is facing an array of criminal charges.
After her address, countless Democrats warmly embraced her on the House floor, including the Senate Majority Leader, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, a longtime ally in policy disputes with Republicans.
Shortly afterwards, Schumer acknowledged Pelosi’s accomplishments on the Senate floor.
“Few in American history have been as effective, as driven, as successful as Speaker Pelosi. She’s transformed practically every corner of American politics and unquestionably made America a better, stronger nation,” he said.
Democratic President Joe Biden said in a statement, “Because of Nancy Pelosi, the lives of millions and millions of Americans are better, even in districts represented by Republicans who voted against her bills and too often vilify her. That’s Nancy — always working for the dignity of all of the people.”
The president concluded, “She might be stepping down from her leadership role in the House Democratic Caucus, but she will never waiver in protecting our sacred democracy. As a nation, we owe her a deep debt of gratitude for her service, her patriotism, and above all, her absolute dignity.”
California Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who often sparred with Pelosi on contentious legislative proposals, is the odds-on choice to be the new Republican House speaker, and like Pelosi, under terms of the U.S. Constitution, would become second in line to the presidency after the vice president in the event to the top two positions became vacant.
Pelosi’s decision to step aside from party leadership in the new Congress, where Republicans will hold a slim political edge in the House, just barely a majority in the 435-member chamber, immediately set off speculation about who would replace her as the Democratic leader.
Pelosi’s leadership team, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, has long worked together but all are now in their 80s. Clyburn says he wants to retain a party leadership role in the new Congress while Hoyer said he would step away from a leadership position.
A younger group of Democratic lawmakers — Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California — has presented themselves as a new trio to lead the party in the House.
Jeffries did not speak to his aspirations in a statement but praised Pelosi’s tenure.
“The times have found in Speaker Pelosi a legendary legislator, notorious negotiator and a fabulous facilitator for the ages,” Jeffries said. “She has been the steady hand on the gavel during some of the most turbulent times the nation has ever confronted.”