Republicans' narrow House win leaves Pelosi's fate uncertain

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announces the House voted to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in the U.S. Capitol which will help curb gun violence, on June 24, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — “DEMOCRAT ELECTED IN SAN FRANCISCO,” said the headline of the brief article on page 20 of the New York Times for June 3, 1987. It noted that the Democrat, who would represent San Francisco in Washington, was “prominent in national Democratic circles as a fund-raiser and party organization worker.”

That Democrat was Nancy Pelosi, who would use that organizational and fundraising prowess to become the leader of her party in the House, the first and only woman to hold that position. During Donald Trump’s presidency, she was the face of the Democratic resistance, never more so than when she shredded a paper copy of his 2020 State of the Union address, which he had just finished delivering. More substantively, she fought against his legislative agenda while also overseeing two impeachment inquiries.

She could be equally adept at fending off members of her own party, as when a challenge to her leadership materialized in 2018. When she was elected speaker in 2020, there was no Democratic insurgency to speak of and Pelosi became once more, as Axios put it, “the most powerful woman in Washington.”

Whether she will finally relinquish that power is one of the top questions in Washington today. Although the congressional midterms were far from the Republican rout some predicted, the GOP did win back control of the House, where it will have a narrow majority. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California has been chosen by his party to be the new speaker, and far-right figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia will emerge from the sidelines to sit on prominent committees.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, seen with then-President Donald Trump in the foreground and flanked by then-Vice President Mike Pence, rips up a copy of Trump’s speech.
Nancy Pelosi rips up the speech of then-President Donald Trump after his State of the Union address in 2020. (Jonathan Ernst /Reuters)

Republicans seemed more thrilled by Pelosi’s ouster from the speakership than by McCarthy’s elevation, which was fraught with internecine strife. “House Republicans delivered on our promise to fire Nancy Pelosi and serve as a check on Joe Biden’s disastrous agenda,” Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota said on Wednesday night.

Though she has to relinquish her gavel, Pelosi remains a member of Congress, given the ease with which she won reelection last week. But will she want to lead a disempowered minority party through two years of partisan investigation, or will she conclude that the time is right for a change?

Among those pressing her to delay retirement is President Biden. “I hope you stick,” he reportedly told her in a phone call after the midterms.

Even in the House, losses were not as great as some had projected, with Reps. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia and Marcy Kaptur in Ohio easily overcoming pro-Trump challengers in districts Republicans had hoped to win. But among those who were ousted was Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who headed the Democrats’ electoral campaign committee. Since his defeat, Maloney has engaged in a bitter feud with House progressives, in a show of the kind of familial discord Pelosi is well known to despise.

Pelosi has said that other House members want her to remain as leader, but as with Biden — who turns 80 on Sunday — questions of generational change are unignorable.

Nancy Pelosi stands at a podium, flanked by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.
Pelosi is flanked by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, left, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Now 82 years old, Pelosi and her fellow octogenarian House leaders — Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 83, and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, 82 — have to decide if it’s finally time to step aside and allow a younger class of Democrats to step into power.

“I think it’s time for a new generation of leadership in Congress,” Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota told reporters on Tuesday.

Many believe that she is preparing to anoint Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as her successor. Jeffries would be the first Black party leader in Congress.

Phillips said that Jeffries “would make a fine leader for our caucus,” voicing an opinion that is widely shared by congressional Democrats.

The question of Pelosi’s future comes as her husband, Paul Pelosi, recovers from an attack at the couple’s San Francisco home late last month that left him seriously injured. The accused assailant, David DePape, had been looking for the House speaker, using the same cry — “Where’s Nancy?” — that had animated the violent rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The attack was a reminder of how consistently Republicans have targeted Pelosi over the years — and of how readily some conservative outlets amplify violent rhetoric laced with conspiratorial insinuation.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries stands at a podium during a news conference.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries at a news conference. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Pelosi has acknowledged that the attack on her husband is a factor as she ponders her own future. “I have to say my decision will be affected about what happened the last week or two,” she told CNN before the midterm elections. Just how last Tuesday’s results have further altered her thinking is something of a mystery.

“Everyone I think is frozen by the situation,” a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill told CNN. McCarthy’s election clarifies little for Democrats, other than to remind them that they have their own internal party politics to address.

When she was easily elected by her fellow Democrats to serve as speaker once again in 2020, Pelosi vowed it would be the last time she did so.

Some congressional observers believed that if Democrats fared especially poorly in the midterms, Pelosi would announce her retirement from Congress, as opposed to simply giving up her bid for another speakership. If she were to do so, she would be following in the footsteps of Newt Gingrich, the House speaker from Georgia who engineered the impeachment of Bill Clinton. He announced his retirement from Congress after the 1998 midterms, the results of which were widely seen as a rebuke of the GOP he had tried to reconfigure in his own combative image.

Since no such rebuke came in the 2022 midterms, Pelosi may see little reason to leave.

“I don’t have any plans to step away from Congress,” she said in an interview with ABC News last week.