The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Pelosi bows out, chaos enters (stage right)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), arrives to speak at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., US, on Dec. 1. (Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg News)

She stood all of 5 feet 4 inches, not counting the white stiletto heels, on the podium in the House television studio Thursday for one of her many valedictories. But a more towering figure hasn’t walked these halls in a generation.

Nancy Pelosi is closing two decades as party leader, and two stints as House speaker, on her own terms. Though her Democrats technically lost their majority, their better-than-expected showing in the midterms felt like a victory. With high-fives and hugs, they elected by acclamation a new generation of leaders this week. House Republicans, meanwhile, are acting as though they lost, bickering among themselves as their leader, Kevin McCarthy, sells his soul to extremists in hopes of eking out enough votes to become speaker.

The Post’s JM Rieger breaks down how a narrow Republican House majority could deliver or block the House speakership from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Pelosi is leaving in a last burst of productivity, churning out bills before the chamber becomes a lawmaking dead zone next year. Landmark legislation codifying marriage equality will pass the House on Tuesday on the way to President Biden’s desk. Congress approved a deal this week averting a ruinous rail strike. Also making progress: a massive 2023 spending package, major defense legislation and a bill to avoid a repeat of Donald Trump’s 2020 election abuses.

Pelosi seemed at peace in her weekly news conference Thursday, one of the last of hundreds. Crossing her ankles behind the lectern and battling a cold with sniffles and a tissue, she joked with a Fox News correspondent and referred to Trump as “you know who” and he “who shall remain nameless here.” She volunteered a lesson from 18th-century economist Adam Smith. She made a passionate plea for paid sick leave.

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And she offered this wish for her successors: “As one who has served so long, my dream is that they do better. And I think everybody who has a position of responsibility always wants their successors to do better.”

But that is one dream unlikely to come true.

Her immediate successor as speaker will be virtually guaranteed instant chaos, dysfunction and backstabbing from fellow Republicans. Her successor as Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, will have an easier job at first — the opposition always does — but he could easily struggle to rein in “the squad” on the party’s far left. Both will soon know, if they don’t already, that Pelosi made a devilishly difficult job look easy.

She was a master tactician, with a genius for keeping her ranks unified. This can be seen in the major achievements of her speakership under two Democratic presidents: Obamacare, the economic rescue, Dodd-Frank, coronavirus relief, infrastructure investment, the climate bill. But it can also be seen in what she did as opposition leader: thwarting attempts to kill Obamacare, negotiating a Medicare overhaul and twice impeaching Trump.

I wrote after the 2016 elections that she and other septuagenarian leaders should step aside. But I’m glad she didn’t, because she had precisely the vote-whipping skills needed to limit the damage of Trump’s antidemocratic depredations. She was as consequential in her moment as Rayburn, Cannon and Longworth were in theirs.

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McCarthy received a devastating vote of no confidence this week from an unexpected source: Kevin McCarthy.

Right-wing senators such as Ted Cruz (Tex.) wrote a letter to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell this week insisting Republicans “must not accept anything other than a short-term continuing resolution” funding the government until Republicans take control of the House. That would set up a January showdown in which the government would shut down unless the new Republican House leadership and the Democratic Senate can strike a deal.

But McCarthy, evidently lacking faith in his own ability to get a deal through the House, is pushing to get it done now. Continuing resolutions “are not where we want to be,” he said this week. As Politico artfully put it: “Nobody trusts McCarthy to pass anything (not even McCarthy).”

For good reason. As many as 20 House Republicans oppose McCarthy for speaker (five of them in categorical terms). If he loses more than a few, the race for speaker could go to a second ballot on the House floor for the first time in a century. So he has been making desperate public warnings to fellow Republicans and offering holdouts whatever they demand. (The latest: a promised investigation of the House’s own Jan. 6 committee.)

The trials awaiting McCarthy’s already teetering speakership could be previewed during this week’s rail-strike debate. On the floor, Republicans joined Democrats in warning that failure to pass the bill would lead to “obviously a catastrophic economic disaster,” as Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) put it. But when the roll call came, 129 Republicans voted no — including McCarthy. Sixty percent of the Republican caucus would cause economic calamity before cooperating with Democrats.

America Second!

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There is no question about it: Hakeem Jeffries has the chops to be Democratic leader.

He chops left, right and center. He chops with one hand; he chops with two hands. He raises his index fingers and wags them. He points up, down and forward. He interlocks his fingers as if cracking his knuckles. He makes fists, holds his palms out and does loop-the-loops with his hands.

Watching his inaugural news conference as Democratic leader-designate this week was like watching a symphony conductor. I was so mesmerized by the hand gestures that I had to check the transcript to see what he had said.

Of Pelosi and team: “We stand on their collective broad shoulders.” On the first Black congresswoman: “I stand on the shoulders of people like Shirley Chisholm and so many others.”

Fox’s Chad Pergram asked whether Jeffries feared Pelosi and her leadership team would be “helicopter parents” as backbenchers. “We stand on their shoulders,” Jeffries repeated.

With this much shoulder-standing, the House physician is going to need to bring in an orthopedist.

But I would rate Jeffries’s debut a success. He has the politician’s gift of revealing nothing and the orator’s gift of doing it with great energy and enthusiasm.

Before long, Jeffries will be tested in other ways. Those on the far left, who already view him with suspicion, will in due time pressure the caucus to take politically unpopular stands. But for now, Democrats can count on unity in defining themselves by who they are against.

Jeffries offered to work with Republicans “whenever possible, but we will also push back against extremism whenever necessary.”

The way things look now, that will be “necessary” 24/7.

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