Pelosi stepping down as top House Democrat after 2 decades in leadership

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrives for her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on July 29.

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who broke Congress’s glass ceiling as the first woman to hold the post, announced Thursday she will not seek reelection as the House Democratic caucus’s top leader, ending one of the most consequential leadership tenures in American political history.

“For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect,” Pelosi said in a speech on the House floor Thursday afternoon. She will continue to serve as a member of the House.

Her decision to not seek reelection as the top Democrat in Congress’s lower chamber marks the culmination of a political career widely seen as setting the standard for wielding political power. Historians largely agree that Pelosi redefined the speakership, and she made history climbing the ranks of Democratic leadership, becoming the first woman to be second in line to the presidency – twice.

In her more than three decades serving in the House, Pelosi earned a reputation for amassing power in the face of male colleagues who at times undermined her opinions, and she earned respect by delivering votes on her party’s top priorities, even if that meant twisting the arms of her colleagues to take a bill over the finish line. Pelosi’s ability to keep her caucus in line has led to bipartisan recognition that she alone may be capable of wrangling Democrats’ disparate factions. She led the House Democratic caucus through a bitter fight in 2010 to pass the Affordable Care Act, and most recently managed a razor-thin majority in passing several key pieces of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The White House said in a statement that Biden spoke with Pelosi on Thursday morning and “congratulated her on her historic tenure.”

“History will note she is the most consequential Speaker of the House of Representatives in our history,” Biden said in a statement. “There are countless examples of how she embodies the obligation of elected officials to uphold their oath to God and country to ensure our democracy delivers and remains a beacon to the world.”

Pelosi’s decision to step back has been somewhat expected. She said in 2020 that she would not seek reelection to a leadership position, but she revealed little about her intentions outside a small and extremely loyal circle of trusted confidants, and her plans were never fully clear.

Her choice to step back from leadership comes weeks after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was violently attacked in their San Francisco home by an intruder who was searching for the speaker. The attack on her husband played a major role as she deliberated on her decision, Pelosi said during a recent television interview. She noted in the interview that she felt guilt about the violent attack as the intruder was looking for her.

In her speech Thursday, she thanked her husband, calling him “my pillar of support,” and said she was grateful for “all of the prayers and well wishes as he continues his recovery.”

“I’m endlessly grateful for all of life’s blessings, for my Democratic colleagues whose courage and commitment – with the support of your families – have made many of these accomplishments possible,” she said.

Shortly after her announcement, it became clear that a new generation of Democrats was stepping in to take the torch.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, will run for House minority leader, according to two people familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations. Jeffries, 52, would be the first Black person to lead a party in Congress, and has long been seen as a potential heir when Pelosi stepped down.

Jeffries will be joined by Reps. Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (Calif.), who will seek the No. 2 and No. 3 positions, respectively. Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) would stay on as assistant leader, a position that used to be third in line, but will now be fourth in the leadership structure.

While those four leaders have held private conversations about running for leadership posts, or stepping aside like Clyburn, the intentions of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) were less clear. But minutes after Pelosi announced her decision, Hoyer announced he would not seek reelection to leadership and endorsed Jeffries for the top spot.

“You know when Nancy said, ‘there’s a time and a season.’ I think it’s the time and the season, and I think we have excellent alternatives,” said Hoyer, who has served in leadership for over 30 years.

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Nancy Pelosi’s entrance to politics began the moment she was born in 1940 to Annunciata M. D’Alesandro and then-Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro (D-Md.), who later became mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi moved to San Francisco in 1969, where she remained active in Democratic politics and quickly became known as an activist helping the Democratic National Committee. It was there she started to gain a reputation as a prolific fundraiser, a trait that has set her apart in recent years as the Democrat who consistently raised the most money for her House colleagues’ reelection efforts.

In 1986, Rep. Sala Burton (D-Calif.) – whose husband, Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), mentored Pelosi before his death – gave Pelosi her blessing to mount a congressional campaign as her successor if a special election were to be called in the event of her death. In 1987, Pelosi faced her first – and last – competitive race against a crowded field of 13 candidates, edging out Harry Britt, a gay activist who succeeded Harvey Milk on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Several months later, the 47-year-old mother of five won the seat against Republican Harriet Ross to finish Burton’s two-year term.

Sworn into office a week later, Pelosi was invited to dinner in Washington to meet a crop of young House Democrats, including Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), now Senate majority leader; Dick Durbin (Ill.), now Senate majority whip; Barbara Boxer (Calif.), now a former senator, and others. Rep. George Miller (Calif.) introduced Pelosi to them by making a bold prediction – meet the future first woman speaker of the House.

Pelosi wasted no time making her mark in the House, taking up China’s threats against Taiwan as a top priority for her and her constituents in San Francisco’s Asian American community. In 1991, Pelosi famously stood alongside Reps. Ben Jones (D-Ga.) and John Miller (R-Wash.) to unfurl a banner reading, “To those who died for democracy in China” at Tiananmen Square, where students defending democracy were killed two years earlier. Those who know her best point to the massacre at Tiananmen Square as a catalyst, drawing Pelosi in both as a lawmaker representing San Francisco’s prominent Chinese community and as a mother who was pained watching college-age students, like her own children, being persecuted for defending democracy.

Her chance to enter leadership came in 1999, when she decided to challenge Hoyer for majority whip, assuming that the seat opened up if Democrats won back the majority in November 2000. Although Republicans kept the majority that year, then-Democratic Minority Whip David Bonior (Mich.) resigned the post in 2001, sparking a rematch between the two former interns to Rep. Daniel Brewster (D-Md.). Pelosi became the first woman to win the post – by about 20 votes.

One year after her victory over Hoyer, Pelosi led a Democratic rebellion against the Iraq War resolution that her congressional mentor, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), crafted with President George W. Bush’s administration. While the resolution passed in October 2002, Pelosi whipped a large majority of Democrats to vote against it, signaling a major shift in Democratic caucus politics toward coastal liberals opposed to war.

In 2002, Gephardt announced his intention to run for president, creating an opening for Pelosi to run for the top Democratic spot in the House. She formally became minority leader after intraparty elections that year, becoming the highest-ranking woman to achieve such a feat.

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As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars dragged on, Pelosi became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, strongly rebuking the president in stark terms ahead of his reelection campaign in 2004.

“Bush is an incompetent leader. In fact, he’s not a leader. He’s a person who has no judgment, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has decided upon,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2004. “Not to get personal about it, but the president’s capacity to lead has never been there. In order to lead, you have to have judgment. In order to have judgment, you have to have knowledge and experience. He has none.”

Bush went on to win reelection, while House Democrats lost seats that year, a rebuke that motivated Pelosi to aggressively work to win back the majority in 2006. In the first of many times Pelosi had to successfully hold her caucus together, she pushed back against Bush’s plan to reform Social Security and urged her members to coalesce in opposition, which they did.

Democrats’ support for the war also began to wane, mirroring public opinion at the time, and they began to position themselves as the party supporting withdrawal. As questions swirled over whether Bush had misled Congress about the rationale for invading Iraq, Democrats began to call for impeachment proceedings against him. But with her eyes on the majority, Pelosi told The Washington Post in May 2006 that a Democratic-controlled House would launch investigations into the administration – stressing that impeachment was not the goal but acknowledging, “You never know where it leads to.”

The antiwar effort helped House Democrats successfully clinch 30 seats in the 2006 midterms, paving the way for the party to regain the House majority for the first time since 1993. Largely credited for relentlessly campaigning and fundraising for candidates, Pelosi was then the unanimous selection by House Democrats to become speaker of the House, setting up the historic moment months later when she became the first woman to hold the position. Bush commemorated the moment during his 2007 State of the Union speech, turning to her before uttering, “Madame Speaker,” which garnered loud applause.

Ahead of the 2008 election, Pelosi faced her first major defeat as the top Democrat on the House floor when members overwhelmingly voted against a $700 billion plan to bail out Wall Street. But working aggressively with the Senate, she clinched a new deal four days later that passed both chambers and averted economic collapse.

The election of President Barack Obama later that year gave congressional Democrats the ability to finally pass legislation they were unable to do under a Republican.

The Obama administration spent much of its political capital crafting the Affordable Care Act to broadly overhaul health care. And for more than a year before the 2010 midterm elections, Pelosi worked relentlessly to muscle the bill into law – an almost insurmountable challenge as House Democrats knew they were risking their political careers if they supported the controversial legislation. After the Senate lost its filibuster-proof majority, many considered a “skinny” health-care bill as an alternative to get bipartisan support. Instead, Pelosi took charge and worked to get the legislation over the finish line in the House.

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi will go down as one of most accomplished legislators in American history – breaking barriers, opening doors for others, and working every day to serve the American people. I couldn’t be more grateful for her friendship and leadership,” Obama tweeted Thursday.

As House Democrats predicted, the passage of the ACA led them to lose a historic 63 seats and with it their majority in 2010. Republicans spent tens of millions of dollars vilifying Pelosi during those midterm elections, sinking her popularity to new lows. But she stayed on as minority leader, defeating a token challenge from moderate Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog Democrat who survived the political bloodbath.

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Pelosi spent the subsequent years trying to claw back the majority and defending Obama’s legacy as Republicans moved to overturn the landmark health-care bill. As the 2016 elections approached, Pelosi banked that Democrats would win 15 or more seats thanks to the momentum behind Hillary Clinton to become the first female president. But the expectations were never met as Donald Trump was elected president and only six Democrats picked up seats that year, prompting members to question her agility atop the caucus.

It was then that Pelosi faced the toughest internal challenge of her two decades leading Democrats, as fuming members began to openly call for a generational change that would oust her, Hoyer and Clyburn as caucus leaders. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a relatively unknown lawmaker at the time, launched a fierce challenge to her in late 2016 that left her pleading with members to secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote. While she was able to amass the support needed to stay on as minority leader, the encounter weakened her internally.

Trump’s declining popularity and Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act boosted Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Not wanting to distract from that energy, Pelosi adopted “Just win, baby” as her mantra in public and private, a blessing for moderate candidates running in crucial swing districts to say they would not vote for her as speaker if Democrats regained the majority.

Pelosi also helped recruit a diverse class of candidates that would appeal to voters in 2018, including a historic number of women, with military and national security roles that would work to counter what they claimed was Trump’s unwavering threat to democracy. It helped bring a “blue wave” to Congress, with 41 moderate and liberal Democrats flipping GOP seats to win back the majority.

On Jan. 3, 2019, Pelosi became the first speaker since Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) in the early 1950s to lose the gavel and stay around long enough to reclaim it.

During that first year back in charge, several liberal activists joined the Democratic caucus, all eager to defy leadership and push their liberal priorities. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), who ousted Pelosi’s presumed heir, Rep. Joseph Crowley, staged a sit-in at Pelosi’s office to protest Democrats’ inaction on climate change. The more confrontational approach, which defied the deference often given to leadership, fomented tensions that have persisted between moderates and liberals in the caucus, even though Ocasio-Cortez and members of the liberal “Squad” have often fallen in line with Pelosi’s desires since then.

Although questions about her age and ability bubbled up, Pelosi often made up for it by the way in which she would defy Trump. House Democrats, including those who did not plan to support her if she mounted a bid this cycle, say the memorable photo of her standing in the White House’s Roosevelt Room and pointing at Trump during a confrontation is an excellent example of her dedication to standing up against anyone who crosses her or her party.

Pelosi spent most of 2019 turning down the temperature on demands to impeach Trump from within her conference, telling The Washington Post in March of that year that Trump was “just not worth it.” But after months of holding back the liberal flank’s demands, Pelosi’s hand was forced after it emerged that Trump had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for business dealings ahead of the 2020 presidential election, linking the request to the release of U.S. military aid.

In early 2020, Trump was impeached on a party-line vote for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate acquitted the president, but Pelosi’s disgust toward Trump persisted. Two months later, as Trump finished a defiant State of the Union speech, an angry Pelosi stood behind him and ripped apart her copy of his speech.

Shortly thereafter, the world was overcome by an invisible common threat: the coronavirus pandemic. Pelosi largely oversaw negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that resulted in a bipartisan agreement to inject $2.5 trillion into the economy. Pelosi also instituted remote voting to allow House business to continue, a decision routinely attacked by Republicans.

Pelosi again calculated that Democrats would keep their majorities and possibly expand them as the country was set to rebuke Trump and elect Biden as the 46th president. While Biden did win the election, split-ticket voters helped Republicans flip seats in 2020, resulting in a narrow nine-seat House majority for Democrats and foreshadowing troubles ahead for keeping an ideologically fractured caucus together.

But before congressional Democrats could help a Democratic president pass priority legislation, Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen enraged his supporters, who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a final effort to overturn the results of the election.

After getting whisked away to Fort McNair as rioters ransacked the Capitol, Pelosi began impeachment proceedings against Trump almost immediately. A week after the attack, Pelosi held an impeachment vote and witnessed 10 Republicans join all House Democrats in supporting the article against Trump – the most bipartisan impeachment vote in American history. The Senate again acquitted Trump, but seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to convict.

With Biden as president, Pelosi faced her most daunting task as she tried to meld support within her caucus for two planks of his administration’s priorities. After the Senate crafted and passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, Pelosi held the legislation as leverage to ensure her chamber could first find agreement on Biden’s social spending package and pass both bills together. But as negotiations for Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill stalled – and with moderate and vulnerable Democrats clamoring for legislative wins to tout ahead of this year’s midterms – Pelosi got Biden to break the stalemate by telling House Democrats that he supported decoupling the legislation and promising liberals he would work with the Senate to pass their priority bills.

Then, in late 2020, after the infrastructure bill passed, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced that he would not support the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, citing climbing inflation. His statement sent leaders, including Pelosi, back to the drawing board.

During that time, Pelosi effectively kept her slim majority together to pass numerous bills, including on global competitiveness against China, helping veterans exposed to burn pits get health care, gun control and, most recently, an assortment of measures funding the police. Most of those bills were not passed easily, including the police funding, which were often pulled from floor-vote consideration after liberals and Congressional Black Caucus members objected.

While the slim margin allowed members to easily raise objections to measures, Pelosi was still able to use the powerful ability she has to find the votes and bend members’ will to get there. It’s a trait that even Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), have admitted admiring.

“You could argue she’s been the strongest speaker in history,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said in an interview last year. “She has shown more capacity to organize and muscle, with really narrow margins, which I would’ve thought impossible.”