In just a few weeks, Nancy Pelosi will not hold the title of Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader, or even Minority Whip.
For the first time in two decades, Pelosi will simply be a member of Congress, trading in her regal Capitol office complex for a cubbyhole office across the street in one of the ministerial House office buildings.
On Thursday, the Speaker announced that she would not seek another term as the leader of House Democrats when they return to the minority next year. But she will remain in the position she has held since 1987 and was just re-elected to this month. Her longtime lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC), also announced they would step down from their posts, though Clyburn intends to run for the No. 4 Democratic position.
It’s an unusual situation. Typically, once they relinquish their powerful positions, top congressional leaders leave Capitol Hill altogether rather than return to life in the rank and file. Among the reasons they usually do is to clear the scene fully so their successors take charge without the past looming over them.
But Pelosi is an unusual leader, and because of her unparalleled reputation among House Democrats, the overriding reaction to her decision was deference, not doubt. Indeed, no Democrat seemed to think the transition to a new generation of leadership would be complicated by the last generation of leadership continuing to rub elbows with them every day.
“I’m glad she’s staying,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “All of us love her. And we respect her guidance, advice, and counsel—I mean, I think we’re all happy she’s staying.”
After Pelosi’s speech on the floor of the House on Thursday, Democrats predicted—and hoped—that the longtime leader would serve as a valuable source of advice and counsel to her successors and anyone else.
“She will give the new team the opportunity to spread their wings, but I know that she will always be there for anybody who needs advice and counsel,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). “I imagine that people would be consulting her a lot… we’re talking about free political advice from a historical political genius.”
Pelosi’s camp, however, swiftly pushed back on any suggestion she’d be a behind-the-scenes player shaping the transition, or that she would execute any duties under a formal “speaker emeritus” position.
“I have no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen, saying: ‘My son doesn’t like the stuffing that way. This is the way we make it,’” Pelosi told a small group of reporters on Thursday afternoon, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The new leadership, Pelosi said, “will have their vision. They will have their plan, and I think that the authenticity of all of that will be respected.”
Pelosi, who exerted her influence on the powerful Appropriations Committee before becoming Democratic leader, also said that she would not request any committee assignments. Drew Hammill, her spokesman, told The Daily Beast her “only focus will be San Francisco.”
It’s hard to imagine that Pelosi, given her years of experience and institutional knowledge, will have absolutely no role in advising colleagues, whether they be in leadership or in the rank and file. The vast majority of Democratic lawmakers have only known a Congress with Pelosi in it—or serving as Madame Speaker.
For many, the thought of a wise Speaker emeritus remaining on the Hill is a comforting one, even if Pelosi herself dismisses it.
“I think it helps, you know, knowing that it’s not just a stark departure,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), a member of Pelosi’s whip team. “There’s a sort of senior adviser role that I think will be there.”
The smooth but unusual Pelosi transition is shaping up as a sharp contrast to the Irish goodbye of John Boehner, who resigned his speakership and office after facing threats of removal. Or the slow fade of Paul Ryan, who announced he would retire as Speaker well before Republicans lost their majority in 2018, and then left office during a partial, GOP-induced government shutdown he couldn’t avert.
The next crop of Democratic leaders are likely to be Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who earned the endorsements of Hoyer and many other Democrats to become Minority Leader, and Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA), who would succeed Hoyer and Clyburn, respectively.
With other contenders bowing out, the trio seem poised for a fairly drama-free ascension. The same cannot be said for Republicans.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is the presumptive new Speaker, but a preliminary leadership election this week made clear he’s far from the 218 votes needed to win at the moment.
Leading up to her announcement Thursday, Pelosi had remained steadfastly tight-lipped on her future. Political observers long expected she’d retire altogether if Democrats went into the minority. That would have kicked off a potentially contentious special election in her safely blue district—potentially one in which her daughter, Christine, might run.
But then again, a lot of things changed for Pelosi over the past few weeks.
Her Democratic colleagues did a nearly miraculous job at staving off Republican wins this election cycle, leaving the GOP with a narrow minority that’s already proving a headache to McCarthy. President Joe Biden himself reportedly urged Pelosi to stick around, as did Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
In October, Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was brutally attacked by a man with a hammer after he broke into their San Francisco home, looking for Nancy. Paul Pelosi was hospitalized and faces a long road to recovery. The Speaker said in an interview this month that the terrible incident would factor into her decision about her political future.
On the House floor Thursday, mulling over her time at the helm of the Democratic Caucus, Pelosi said she’s ready to pass on the responsibilities of leadership. The crowd of Democrats who packed into their side of the chamber swarmed her with hugs at the end of her speech—with members gushing over her leadership to reporters shortly thereafter.
A series of political moves among Democratic senior members went instantly into effect after.
Hoyer also said he would not run for leadership again—though he too will remain in office. Jeffries, the long assumed frontrunner to replace Pelosi as speaker, became the talk of the halls. He has not yet announced his bid to succeed Pelosi, allowing the Speaker to have her moment, and some lawmakers steered clear of specifically endorsing Jeffries after the speech.
At the moment, it looks like Jeffries could be running unopposed after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) reportedly dropped out of contention this week to mull a run for Senate instead.
While Hoyer endorsed Jeffries, Pelosi has said she will not endorse any successor. Even if Jeffries is the sole contender, her detachment is the first and most important step in her apparent quest to leave leadership without looming large over it.
Another step is her decision to not seek any committee assignments. Before her election as Democratic leader, Pelosi served not only on the Appropriations Committee, but was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
When asked by reporters about the thought of Pelosi serving alongside them in committees, some lawmakers seemed genuinely surprised.
“I would pay just for the opportunity to see her in action in the committee. That had never really occurred to me before,” Raskin said. “It will take some adjustment to think of her as another member.”
To Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Pelosi’s continued service in Congress is “probably the best of all worlds.”
“You have some great experience, you have some great leaders, young leaders who have a lot of energy, and we’re going to be able to transition into the next two years,” he said.
When pressed on whether it was an unusual situation, Gallego didn’t exactly say no. Democracy, he said, is unusual.
“This is a subset of that weirdness,” he said. “It’s OK.”