Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t showing her cards, but the longtime Democratic leader has vowed that this year will be her last at the top of the party, auguring a fast-approaching power vacuum that younger lawmakers have been salivating to fill for more than a decade.
A new generation of ambitious Democrats is looking to push aside the old guard of octogenarians — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — but the veteran No. 2 and No. 3 leaders have been forecasting a different scenario, reaching out to their colleagues to gauge support about staying on, even if Pelosi calls it quits.
How those leadership battles play out remains to be seen. But with Pelosi having led the party for the last 19 years — and with Democrats facing long odds of keeping control of the House after the coming midterm elections — the emerging internal consensus has it that this year will be her swan song on Capitol Hill.
“My gut would tell me that this would be her last term,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a member of Pelosi’s leadership team who already sees evidence of the scramble to replace her.
“I see a lot of people who would be the presumed successors donating a lot of money to their colleagues.”
“If we’re in the minority,” added another lawmaker, “I can’t imagine her wanting to do it.”
Ready to seize the opportunity to rise in the ranks are the three leaders seated just below Clyburn: Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the caucus vice chairman.
While there are sure to be others in the mix vying for leadership spots — some early speculation surrounds Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — some lawmakers are predicting “no wild cards” in the highest ranks next year.
And Jeffries, who would be the first Black Speaker in the nation’s history, appears to be the early favorite for the top spot.
“I think it’s pretty clear that our next tier of leadership is going to be Hakeem, Katherine and Pete,” said one moderate Democratic lawmaker, who like many sources spoke only anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “I think probably 80 percent of people here believe that.”
Some of Pelosi’s top allies are urging her to stay on, saying they don’t see anyone who could fill her shoes. Even at 81, Pelosi is a ball of energy who is in constant motion on Capitol Hill and holds the undisputed title as Democrats’ most successful fundraiser in Congress. She’s raked in more than $1 billion for her party since she joined the leadership ranks in 2002, a spokesman said, dwarfing amounts raised by others like Hoyer and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“I support the Speaker; I think she’s done a really good job. She has been on point and she’s delivered on all the caucus priorities, so I just don’t see who would replace her at this point. I can’t envision anyone right now,” Rep. Norma Torres, a Pelosi ally and fellow California Democrat, told The Hill.
“I don’t see how she has not met the demands of this younger generation, so I don’t see any of them as ready to step up and lead an entire caucus, a very diverse caucus.”
In typical fashion, Pelosi has not announced her post-election plans, not least because she wouldn’t want to highlight a lame-duck status that could hinder her fundraising prowess just as Democrats are scrambling to protect dozens of vulnerable incumbents from what could be a GOP wave this fall.
But despite some early speculation that Pelosi might resign ahead of the elections — a step taken by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015 amid pressure from the right — there’s no sign that she’s even considering it.
“Given her legacy, [she] probably doesn’t want to create the chaos that a leadership battle would create if she did leave early,” said the moderate lawmaker. “The headline would be ‘the Democrats’ leadership battle’ for the next four months.”
When asked if Pelosi plans to step down after the November election, Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s chief spokesman and trusted confidant, replied: “The Speaker is not on a shift, she’s on a mission.”
Still, there are other signs that senior Democrats are preparing to hand over the reins to a younger generation. At least 26 Democrats will not seek reelection in the House this November. Among them are a core group of longtime Pelosi loyalists that includes Yarmuth and Reps. David Price (N.C.), G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) and Jackie Speier (Calif.), who represents an area just south of Pelosi’s San Francisco district.
Pelosi’s promise to step out of leadership after the current cycle came in 2018, after Democrats had won control of the House and Pelosi — the first female Speaker in the nation’s history when she held the gavel from 2007 to 2011 — faced an internal revolt from roughly two dozen Democrats eager for new leadership. To win the Speakership for the second time, she committed to limiting herself to two terms with the gavel — a vow she reaffirmed in 2020.
Yet Hoyer and Clyburn, who have been her top lieutenants since 2003 and 2006, respectively, made no similar promise. And both are said to be reaching out to colleagues in an effort to remain in leadership spots.
“Clyburn is acting like he’s going to stay. I’m hearing he’s going to stay,” Yarmuth said.
Hoyer, too, likely would fight to stick around, Yarmuth predicted.
“It’s a question of whether he has support or not. He’s made a lot of friends over the years,” he said. “He’d probably be hard to dislodge.”
There’s a long and growing restlessness, however, among the newer members of the caucus who think it’s well past time to place some fresh faces atop the party. The 16-year reign of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn has created a bottleneck in the upper ranks, and a long list of prominent would-be leaders with nowhere else to climb — such as former Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (N.M.) — have left the House in recent years to pursue higher office elsewhere.
That’s led to plenty of internal grumbling about wasted talent and missed opportunities, while adding to the sense that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn will all be replaced in the next Congress — particularly if Democrats fare poorly in the midterms.
“If we go through a bloodbath,” said the moderate Democrat, “I think people are going to be prepared for new leadership.”
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