Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) momentous decision to step down from Democratic leadership marks a watershed moment in Washington politics, sending tremors across a Congress where she’s guided her party for the last two decades.
The development carries broad implications for the workings of Capitol Hill, promising to pave the way for a younger generation of Democratic leaders, who will take over with Republicans controlling the House, while altering the image of the party after 20 years with Pelosi at the helm.
Here are five takeaways as the Pelosi era is set to end.
A woman in charge
Pelosi is a historic figure, becoming the most powerful elected woman in U.S. history when she assumed the Speakership in 2007, then repeated the feat again in 2019 after a long stint in the minority. It’s a distinction she still holds.
From that unique perspective, she championed bill after bill to advance women’s causes — including efforts this year to codify Roe vs. Wade following the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate abortion rights. And Pelosi’s speech on Thursday from the House floor — where she introduced herself as not only Speaker, but “a wife, a mother, a grandmother” — was thick with references to the progress women have made since she was first elected 35 years ago — and the long strides that remain.
“When I came to the Congress in 1987, there were 12 Democratic women. Now there are over 90,” she said. “And we want more.”
Pelosi’s legislative legacy is well known: She muscled through proposals as consequential as ObamaCare, the sweeping Wall Street reforms that followed the Great Recession and the massive climate package signed by President Biden this year.
More than that, she carved a well-earned reputation for counting votes and convincing reluctant lawmakers to support controversial legislation, even when it damaged them politically.
The combination made her among the most effective Speakers in U.S. history — and inspired women to follow her into politics.
“She’s broken glass ceilings and been a true role model for generations of women — including myself,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
A unifying speech
Pelosi comes from a family steeped in the traditions of the Democratic Party — her father was a member of the House through much of the 1940s — and she can be fiercely partisan in her confrontations with Republicans on countless issues of politics and policy. But her speech on Thursday avoided the type of partisan fire breathing that’s become routine on Capitol Hill.
Instead, Pelosi sought to meet the moment with a message of unity and high ideals, invoking legendary Republican figures like Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln to make the case that fighting for the country’s founding principles is a shared business.
“We owe to the American people our very best, to deliver on their faith,” she said. “To forever reach for the more perfect union — the glorious horizon that our founders promised.”
If there was a partisan jab at the Republicans on Thursday, it was not what Pelosi said but what she left out. In referencing the presidents she’s “enjoyed working with,” Pelosi mentioned George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden — but not Donald Trump.
It was a glaring omission, though it didn’t appear to bother the handful of GOP lawmakers who were in the chamber to hear the speech.
“I thought it was very positive,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), who was among those Republicans on hand. “I was happy to be there.”
Changing of the guard
Pelosi’s decision paves the way for a “new generation” of liberals to rise in the Democratic ranks, breaking the leadership logjam that the “big three” — Pelosi, Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — have formed over their two-decade tenure.
“For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect,” Pelosi said in her remarks.
Minutes after the Speaker’s decision, Hoyer — who has served as Pelosi’s No. 2 for years — announced that he would also step back from Democratic leadership next year, setting the scene for a seismic shakeup at the top echelons of the caucus that will usher in a new slate of liberal leaders. Clyburn has said he intends to remain in leadership, but has not indicated which position.
The announcements were music to the ears of younger, restive lawmakers whose ambitions have been frustrated for years by the leadership bottleneck at the very top.
But that changing of the guard, while officially put into motion on Thursday, has been the talk of Washington for months. Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) are viewed as the heirs apparent to the “big three.”
None of them, however, announced bids on Thursday, opting to make their longtime leader the focus of the day.
“We’re all just trying to process what we heard and honor the legacy of Speaker Pelosi, what she’s meant to that chamber, what she’s meant to the California delegation and what she’s meant to me personally,” Aguilar told reporters. “Those are the things I’m reflecting on right now.”
But while Pelosi and Hoyer are both on their way to becoming rank-and-file members, they’re viewing the move differently.
“I feel balanced about it all,” the Speaker told reporters in the Capitol. “I’m not sad at all.”
Hoyer, on the other hand, asked how it feels to step out of the leadership, responded, “Not good.”
A divided Congress and country
Party polarization has worsened dramatically over the course of Pelosi’s years on Capitol Hill. And the House chamber during Pelosi’s speech was a glaring portrait of the stark partisan divisions that plague both the Congress and the country.
On one side were Pelosi’s Democratic allies, who filled virtually every chair and cheered her numerous times during the 16-minute address. On the other were just a handful of Republicans — and hundreds of empty seats.
The Republicans who were on hand — including Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) — were glowing in their characterization of the outgoing Speaker, even as they emphasized their policy differences.
“It has been historic,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.). “She’s been strong for her conference all this time. There’s a rivalry with opposite teams and all that stuff, but you know, at the end of the day, we all try to remember and reflect on how you get along with people.”
Still, the empty GOP seats were a ready reminder of the tensions that linger between the parties, particularly following last year’s attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) was among the absent Republicans. And some Democrats said they weren’t surprised by the GOP no-shows.
“I have unfortunately come to expect an utter lack of regard for civility, collegiality, institutional respect, and frankly even respect for the American public,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said of the Republicans.
“The American public sent them a message, whether they want to accept it or not, last Tuesday. Which was: We want less of that. We want less divisiveness, less anger, less of this craziness and a lot more civility and respect,” he continued. “And it’s as if they heard nothing.”
Warning about democracy
The final chapter of Pelosi’s tenure as Democratic leader will be marked by her dogged defense of American democracy — even when it put her in direct conflict with her political foes.
As Speaker, Pelosi led two impeachments of former President Trump, established a select committee to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and ensured that the House would reconvene after the rampage to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election — in the very chamber rioters had infiltrated.
In her remarks on Thursday, Pelosi took pains not to attack Republicans, but argued clearly for the importance of safeguarding America’s founding principles if the country is to survive.
“American Democracy is majestic – but it is fragile,” the Speaker said. “Many of us here have witnessed its fragility firsthand – tragically, in this Chamber. And so, Democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm.”
Pelosi’s decision to step down came just a day after the formal midterm results had turned the House to Republican control. But it was Democrats who had overperformed at the polls, preventing the considerable gains that GOP leaders had expected.
In warning about the fragility of democracy, Pelosi made the case that voters recognized it, too.
“Last week, the American people spoke,” she said. “And their voices were raised in defense of liberty, of the rule of law and of Democracy itself.”