House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Thursday that she will relinquish her leadership post after leading House Democrats for two decades, building a legacy as one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in American politics.
Pelosi, the first and only woman to serve as speaker, said that she would continue to serve in the House, giving the next generation the opportunity to lead the House Democrats, who will be in the minority next year despite a better-than-expected midterm election performance.
“I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” said Pelosi in the House chamber. “For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect, and I’m grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”
Pelosi, 82, rose to the top of the House Democratic caucus in 2002, after leading many in her party against a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. She then guided Democrats as they rode the waves of popular opinion, seeing their power swell to a 257-seat majority after the 2008 elections, ultimately crash to a 188-seat minority, and then rise once again.
Her political career was marked by an extraordinary ability to understand and overcome those political shifts, keeping conflicting factions of her party united in passing major legislation. She earned the Speaker’s gavel twice – after the 2006 and 2018 elections – and lost it after the 2010 elections.
Of late, she has conducted a string of accomplishments with one of the slimmest party splits in history, passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package last year and a $750 billion health care, energy and climate bill in August.
Her legislative victories in the Biden era cemented her reputation as one of the most successful party leaders in Congress. During the Obama administration, Pelosi was instrumental to the passage of the massive economic stimulus bill and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which provides over 35 million Americans health care coverage.
Over the past 20 years, the California liberal has been relentlessly attacked by Republicans, who portray her as the personification of a party for the coastal elite. “We have fired Nancy Pelosi,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Fox News on Wednesday, after Republicans won back the chamber.
In recent years, the anger directed toward her has turned menacing. During the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, pro-Trump rioters searched for her — and last month, a male assailant attacked Paul Pelosi, the speaker’s husband, with a hammer at the couple’s home in San Francisco, while she was in Washington.
Pelosi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper this month that her decision to retire would be influenced by the politically motivated attack. Paul Pelosi was released from the hospital two weeks ago after surgery to repair a skull fracture and injuries to his arm and hands.
After thanking her colleagues for their well-wishes for Paul, the House chamber broke out into a standing ovation.
Democrats now look to finally choose Pelosi’s successor
Pelosi’s long reign became a source of tension within her own party. She won the gavel after the 2018 elections by promising her own party that she would leave her leadership post by 2022.
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, who previously tried to oust Pelosi, told CNN it’s time for a new chapter.
“She’s a historic speaker who’s accomplished an incredible amount, but I also think there are a lot of Democrats ready for a new chapter,” said Moulton.
But some Democrats praised Pelosi and said they wished she would remain leader. Asked about her decision, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer clutched his chest and said he had pleaded with her to stay.
“I told her when she called me and told me this and all that, I said ‘please change your mind. We need you here,’” Schumer said.
House Democrats appear likely to choose New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, to succeed Pelosi as leader, though Democrats won’t vote until November 30.
In pictures: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
After her speech, Pelosi wouldn’t tell reporters who’d she support. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn announced they would also step down from their leadership posts, and endorsed Jeffries to succeed Pelosi. Hoyer said Jeffries “will make history for the institution of the House and for our country.” Clyburn added that he hoped Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark and California Rep. Pete Aguilar would join Jeffries in House Democratic leadership.
Before Pelosi’s announcement, Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told CNN that she expects her caucus to throw their support behind Jeffries, and help him become the first Black House Democratic leader.
“If she steps aside, I’m very clear that Hakeem Jeffries is the person that I will be voting for and leading the Congressional Black Caucus to vote for,” said Beatty.”I don’t always speak for everybody, but I’m very comfortable saying I believe that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus would vote for Hakeem Jeffries.”
Retiring North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former CBC chairman, told CNN that Jeffries “is prepared for the moment” if Pelosi steps aside. Butterfield said he thought Jeffries would run.
The longtime Democratic leader told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that members of her caucus had asked her to “consider” running in the party’s leadership elections at the end of the month, adding: “But, again, let’s just get through the election.”
Any decision to run again, Pelosi said, “is about family, and also my colleagues and what we want to do is go forward in a very unified way, as we go forward to prepare for the Congress at hand.”
“Nonetheless, a great deal is at stake because we’ll be in a presidential election. So my decision will again be rooted in the wishes of my family and the wishes of my caucus,” she continued. “But none of it will be very much considered until we see what the outcome of all of this is. And there are all kinds of ways to exert influence.”
Pelosi is a towering figure in American politics with a history-making legacy of shattering glass ceilings as the first and so far only woman to be speaker of the US House of Representatives.
Pelosi was first elected to the House in 1987, when she won a special election to fill a seat representing California’s 5th Congressional District.
When she was first elected speaker, Pelosi reflected on the significance of the event and what it meant for women in the United States.
“This is an historic moment,” she said in a speech after accepting the speaker’s gavel. “It’s an historic moment for the Congress. It’s an historic moment for the women of America.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Melanie Zanona, Clare Foran, Daniella Diaz, Ted Barrett, Ali Zaslav, Ashley Killough and Sonnet Swire contributed to this report.