Politics

Nancy’s Out. Who’s Next?

The future leaders of House Democrats are shuffling into place.

A photo of Nancy Pelosi, wearing sunglasses, standing in front of the Capitol.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in September. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

With this kind of stagecraft, it was unlikely Speaker Nancy Pelosi would go the ho-hum route and announce she was running for another term as House minority leader.

On Wednesday night, it became official that Republicans will control the next House. This signaled it was time for House Democrats to assemble their leadership team. Pelosi came clean with her plan on Thursday in a speech delivered on the House floor.

It was a heightened, theatrical moment: Suspenseful details were leaked in advance about how Pelosi had gone home with two different speeches the night before, her decision not quite final. When she strode into the Capitol on Thursday morning, Pelosi wore white, something she does on special occasions, in a nod to the suffragists. Her daughter, documentary maker Alexandra Pelosi, was reportedly following her around the halls with a camera.

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The Democratic side of the House floor was packed to near State of the Union–level attendance. In one row, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the two other legs of the aging “Big Three” who have led House Democrats since 2007, were seated next to the presumed incoming leaders—Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had pleaded with Pelosi to stay in House leadership, sat next to them.

Attendance was sparse on the Republican side. Most of those in the chamber for the announcement were just trying to give customary one-minute remarks at the opening of the session. It was likely a far bigger audience than Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson had expected, for example, for his recognition of November as National Career Development Month.

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Among those Republicans there to give remarks, though, was South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, the recipient of arguably the most vicious glare Pelosi has ever given another member, in 2009. At the end of his one-minute speech on Thursday, Wilson said, “Godspeed, Speaker Pelosi.” He stayed to watch her speech. That’s more than could be said of the Republican leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who said he couldn’t go because he had “meetings.” It fell to his deputy, Rep. Steve Scalise, to attend. (Keep in mind that Scalise, unlike McCarthy, already has his leadership position in the incoming Republican majority locked up.)

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It was clear very early on in Pelosi’s speech, when she described her first visit to the Capitol as a child, that she was announcing her decision to step down as House Democrats’ leader after a 20-year stint. Eight of those years she spent as speaker. Despite the better-than-expected results of the 2022 midterms, and the drip-drip of stories about President Biden and Schumer urging her to stay on, Pelosi announced she wouldn’t seek reelection to leadership—sticking to the pledge she made four years ago to serve two additional terms. She would, however, remain a representative from San Francisco.

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The dominoes fell quickly from there.

While Pelosi was still in the well of the House giving hugs to a line of well-wishers, Hoyer, Pelosi’s longtime rival and no. 2, was speaking with Jeffries. There had always been the distant possibility during previous, ill-fated rebellions against Pelosi—in 2010, 2016, and 2018—that Hoyer might finally assume the top House Democratic position. He had been second to Pelosi after narrowly losing to her in the 2001 House minority whip race, and had survived ever since, often in spite of her. Hoyer has long maintained his own power base in the House. (One of the rare times Pelosi didn’t get her way in intracaucus disputes, after all, was when he beat Pelosi-backed Rep. John Murtha in the 2006 race for House majority leader.)

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But by 2022, and at 83 years old, Hoyer could see the writing on the wall. In a letter to his colleagues shortly after Pelosi’s announcement, Hoyer said that he, too, would step away from leadership and back into the rank and file, and that he would support Jeffries as the next top Democrat. A reporter asked Hoyer, after his announcement, how it felt to step out of leadership.

“Not good,” he said.

And what of Clyburn? In a tweet Thursday afternoon, he said 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.” That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s going to leave leadership. He plans to run for the position of assistant Democratic leader. In practicality, though, he may just be around to serve as a mentor.

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So how did Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar get to be the heirs? Being in the right place in the right time had much to do with it.

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They are far from the first ambitious members to want a crack at replacing the reigning triumvirate. But most of those members got tired of waiting around. So many “rising star” House Democrats over the years—which, in the context of House Democrats, can refer to 60-year-olds in their 10th terms—moved on to the next thing. Potential successors like Rahm Emanuel, Chris Van Hollen, and Xavier Becerra went to executive branch jobs or the Senate. And Joe Crowley lost a primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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But Jeffries won the no. 5 leadership position after the 2018 midterms, right when Pelosi committed to only two more terms as leader. Clark won the no. 6 spot. The no. 4 ranking leader, Ben Ray Luján, chose to run for Senate in 2020, allowing Pete Aguilar to win a House leadership spot after that election. Now the ladder is finally clear.

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The shoes to fill will be substantial. Over the years, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn had become master operators of the legislative process, passing one legislative priority after another along a conveyor belt. The next two years will be a reasonable training-wheel period for the new leaders: There will still be a Democratic president and Senate. The task of the House minority will be, basically, to vote no—and in the case of this House minority, it will also be to watch as the small, combustible Republican House majority attempts to govern.

Nevertheless, there will be opportunities to wield large amounts of influence. It’s hard to see how House Republicans, for example, will get 218 votes on their own to pass any sort of government spending bill. They’ll always need Democratic votes. Pelosi, who as minority leader could count Republican vote shortfalls as well as or better than the Republicans could, said in a Wednesday night statement that the state of things give Democrats “strong leverage over a scant Republican majority.”

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Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a member of Democrats’ whip team, told reporters Tuesday a story from when Pelosi was minority leader and Paul Ryan was speaker. It was during the water crisis in Flint, which Kildee represents.

“I still remember her calling me into [her] office from the floor, and getting on the phone with Paul Ryan, who was the speaker, and working it out for me to negotiate directly with Paul on Flint recovery,” Kildee said. She told Ryan she could deliver the Democratic votes he needed to pass a spending bill in return for him funding one of their priorities, and sent Kildee to Ryan’s office.

“And so, over the course of a couple hours,” he said, “we worked out the Flint water crisis support, which was not widely supported by Republicans at the time.”

God knows how many stories there are like this from Pelosi’s tenure. As Kildee conceded about the incoming leaders, “it’s gonna be a learning curve, for sure.” But he has no doubt they will also learn when to exploit legislative opportunities. “You know, these folks have been around a while,” he said.

And just in case they need her, Nancy Pelosi will still be in the building.

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