When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her reelection bid last week, it was a sign that Democrats may be in limbo for another nine months before knowing who their next leader will be.
Pelosi, 81, has been the No. 1 Democrat in the House since 2003. The San Francisco lawmaker announced her intent in 2018 to abide by term limits for senior leadership positions, meaning her tenure would end this year.
But when announcing her intent to run again for her congressional seat in November, she made no mention of what she will do after the election in terms of her leadership post.
Colleagues declined to comment publicly about the sensitive issue of Democratic House leadership. But several lawmakers said they were not surprised Pelosi left the question open, given her reluctance to make herself a lame duck and the need for Democrats to focus on passing legislation rather than fighting over leadership.
“She can’t announce that she’s not running in the middle of a session because it basically neuters her for getting anything else done,” said a member who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“The question is: Does she change her mind later on?” the member added. “And really, at the end of the day, the people that mostly objected to her back in the day have either moved on or have literally left Congress. We just have to wait and see.”
Many House Democrats expect Pelosi to honor her commitment, meaning the caucus could elect a new speaker or minority leader for the first time in 20 years not named Pelosi. But others think the final outcome could hinge on how Democrats fare in November. And in any case, that conversation won’t likely commence publicly until after the election, they say.
“Right now, everybody’s so focused on today and now and what’s happening this year,” said Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara). “Obviously, as we transition to a new Congress in the upcoming year, those discussions and posturings and all those issues will no doubt come forward and transpire. But I haven’t been involved in too many discussions like that. ”
At a caucus meeting Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo delivered a presentation on Democrats’ America COMPETES Act, a legislative package that includes investments in research, innovation and American manufacturing.
The bill “was the total dominant subject” of the meeting, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said. “None of our members brought [Pelosi’s reelection] up.”
Congress also has a Feb. 18 deadline to fund the government, and Democrats hope to revive some aspects of President Biden’s climate and social spending package, dubbed the Build Back Better Act.
House Democrats have a 222-212 majority over Republicans, who are likely to retain the seat recently vacated by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) in an upcoming special election. But nearly 30 Democrats have already announced retirements, and more could lose their seats in primaries and general elections.
House Democrats are clear-eyed about their dim prospects of expanding or even retaining their narrow majority. Though things could change, Republicans are favored to win control of the House in the fall following their unexpected gains in the chamber in 2020, despite losing the White House and control of the Senate.
“We know it’s going to be uphill,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) said in a recent interview. “No one is delusional, given the challenges the country faces and given the fact that a president always has a tough time in the first midterm. But what gives us hope is we have a good record to run on.”
The battle to replace Pelosi is likely to be a three-person race among two of her top lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), and a third ascendant leader, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
Hoyer, 82, who is working from home this week after testing positive for the coronavirus Tuesday, has been Pelosi’s loyal No. 2 since 2003. He could lean on the relationships he’s built over the years while also making the case that working so closely with Pelosi for two decades makes him the best person for the job.
Clyburn, 81, the highest-ranking Black Democrat in the House, joined the leadership trio in 2007. Jeffries, 51, became the No. 5 House Democrat in 2019. If either ascended to speaker or minority leader, it would be historic. No Black member of Congress has ever served in either role.
Clyburn’s timely endorsement of Biden in South Carolina’s 2020 Democratic primary saved his campaign, and Clyburn is leaning on his ties with the president to elevate home-state District Judge J. Michelle Childs in the conversation about Biden’s imminent historic nomination of a Black female jurist to sit on the high court.
Jeffries, the youngest top contender, is positioned as the generational change candidate. He’s gained leadership experience as caucus chair and worked with then-Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2018.
“I believe it would be highly unlikely for Hoyer or Clyburn to remain in their positions,” another member said. “It’s either up or out. They’re either going to run for speaker or they’re going to get challenged, and they will likely lose their positions, because I think the caucus is wanting a change.”
Other members who have been mentioned in the leadership discussion include Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the assistant speaker; Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), Democratic Caucus vice chair; Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Congressional Progressive Caucus chair; and Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the House Intelligence Committee chairman.
One retiring member predicted fundraising prowess will be a factor, calling the top Democratic position a “money-raising” post.
“If you can’t raise money, you’re not going to be seen as attractive a candidate,” the member said. “[Pelosi] is the biggest fundraiser that anyone in the caucus has seen, ever. On the other hand, there’s a lot of interest in getting new blood.”
Pelosi raised $12.3 million last year, and her GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), brought in $13.2 million. Hoyer raised $1.9 million, Clyburn $1.8 million and Jeffries $3 million.