The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats begin preparing for the post-Pelosi era

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) leaves a news conference on the Hill. Behind Pelosi are her partners in the Democratic leadership: Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), left, and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

House Democrats are bracing for a turnover in leadership next year that would amount to a seismic event for the party — one that could empower a new, diverse generation of members while also exacerbating tensions over the direction of the caucus and the policies it should pursue.

After almost 19 years as House Democratic leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is expected to step down at the close of this Congress, ending a historic career that included trying to end George W. Bush’s Iraq War, implementing President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, impeaching President Donald Trump twice and squeezing President Biden’s sweeping agenda through a narrowly controlled House.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) is the early favorite to become the next Democratic leader, but the maneuvering for power has just begun, and fights over who else should be on the leadership team could pit the ideological factions of the caucus against each other.

Whoever replaces Pelosi will face the daunting task of presiding over the increasingly tense debate about whether Democrats will be the party of the activist left or of a center-left coalition that can appeal to a broader segment of America in the struggle with an ever more populist and nationalistic Republican Party.

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It’s a debate that is already raging as Democrats scramble to rescue the main pillar of Biden’s agenda that would expand education, health-care and climate change programs and has led to deep acrimony between liberal and centrist members about what the party has promised voters and what it will actually deliver.

The debate will only get more intense.

“I think we want leadership that bridges some of the different ideological wings of the party, that is committed to listening to all of the perspectives, that will be capable of helping move the Senate or things that have stalled in the House, and has a bold vision of what we need to achieve for the American public,” Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), a liberal, said in an interview. “But whoever it is, I hope they would adopt progressive positions and also listen to the broad caucus and build consensus.”

While Pelosi retains the respect, and often the reverence, of her caucus, interviews with more than two dozen lawmakers and aides across the House Democratic Caucus, including members of the ideological and minority caucuses, made clear that the rank and file are ready to move beyond the “old guard” of octogenarians that includes Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.).

But there are stark differences over how the next set of leaders should run the caucus, regardless of whether Democrats return to the minority or maintain control of the chamber after the midterm elections.

Some want a strong hand like Pelosi.

“I want to make sure that it is someone who can pull the party together. As Pelosi says: ‘Our diversity is our strength, and unity is our power.’ I want to make sure it’s someone who can hold that unity,” said Rep. Bradley Schneider (Ill.), a moderate.

Others want power decentralized, with members hashing out their disagreements among themselves rather than being told where to stand.

“I think there was a ‘holding of power’ model that worked very well for a long time, and I think now it is more about a recognition of different centers of focus within the Democratic caucus that have to be brought in and brought together,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It takes some acceptance of more-decentralized leadership.”

But the members interviewed overwhelmingly agreed that Pelosi’s replacement should be equally as historic as electing the first female speaker. That leaves White men who are mulling a run — such as Hoyer and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), a Pelosi ally — in a difficult spot with a party that is looking for more diversity at the top. It is also to the benefit of Jeffries, who would be the first Black person to lead either party in either chamber.

“I can’t prognosticate the future or what would happen, but if we are playing ‘what if there is ever a change,’ I think it is very important and would have no problem saying that, if I had a crystal ball, I would want the leadership to be reflective of this wonderful democracy in America we live in,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (Ohio), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. “Certainly I would like to be able to say that I was part of the process that had the first Black American to be speaker of the U.S. Congress.”

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There is one possible outcome of the leadership shuffle that many said they fear and that none want: replacing the stability that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have provided with the instability that has marked the House GOP conference for more than a decade, with members chewing through leaders every few years.

“She understands how to get things done and how to keep us together, even if it looks a little bit messy from the outside,” one Democratic member said of Pelosi, speaking, like some others, on the condition of anonymity to talk about private discussions on the potential change in leadership. “I think there’s a real fear that without her, there’s a world where we ended up like the Republicans under [Ohio’s John A.] Boehner and then [Wisconsin’s Paul] Ryan, where no one could keep them together.”

The maneuvering within the caucus stems from Pelosi’s promise in 2018 that this would be her last term as speaker. Pressed in November 2020 on whether she would keep her pledge that the 117th Congress would be her last, Pelosi told reporters, “I don’t want to undermine any leverage I may have, but I made the statement.”

She has since batted away questions about her future and could seek to stay in power. But members and aides view her public refusal to discuss her plans less as an indication that she has rethought her decision and more as a desire not to become a lame duck as she tries to get more of Biden’s agenda into law. Her office declined to comment.

The focus on who’s next has once again stirred up the debate over ageism and who has the right to tell a leader it’s time to call it quits.

Clyburn, who has been in leadership since 2003, said in an interview that while becoming speaker “was not on his radar,” he was not necessarily going to step away from seeking a leadership position whenever Pelosi decides to leave. He questioned why younger members are so impatient for a generational change at the top.

“I don’t know. I don’t understand it,” he said. “I’ll just simply say this: We have to be very, very careful. There has to be a healthy balance of strength and experience.”

The civil rights icon defended his work for the caucus over the years, noting that he might have already stepped aside had racism in the segregated South not prevented him from seeking office earlier in his life.

“If I had gotten elected in my 30s like so many of the White folks did, I may have retired by now, but I didn’t get to until my 50s because the laws worked against me,” he said.

Hoyer, who filed for reelection in December, has long aspired to replace Pelosi and is not deterred by members once again calling for younger, more diverse leadership, according to people close to him. Even so, several of his closest allies privately acknowledge that he is unlikely to replace Pelosi amid the caucus’s “desperate need” and desire to elect new leaders, as one Democrat put it.

Hoyer’s office declined to comment.

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The focus on diversity as a key attribute for the leadership team helps cement Jeffries as the front-runner to lead Democrats into the new era.

Interviews with members of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses showed support for electing the first Black speaker or minority leader, with the latter two groups noting they would rather focus on electing more people of their backgrounds to other leadership posts than challenging Jeffries.

Asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month whether he had heard the rumors that he could replace Pelosi, Jeffries laughed and politely said, “It’s an honor to be able to chair the [Democratic] caucus.”

Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus but is also seen as someone who is friendly with the business community, particularly New York’s finance industry, and protective of moderates who represent competitive districts. While this could help him on the fundraising circuit — where Pelosi thrived, consistently filling her party’s campaign coffers — it has also been a source of skepticism for some progressives.

Last year, he formed the Team Blue PAC along with Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) and New Democrat Coalition co-chair Terri A. Sewell (Ala.), with the goal of defending incumbents against primary challengers in congressional races. The move put him at odds with some of the most liberal House Democrats, who see these types of primary challenges as key to moving the party’s agenda to the left and who arrived in Congress after defeating more-moderate Democrats in primaries.

Members interviewed for this article said Jeffries has been solicitous of liberals who may be most skeptical of him, including members of “the Squad,” a group of young members of color who represent the party’s leftmost wing. But they also privately said Jeffries should spend time this year making more inroads with them.

He recently sponsored a bill to overhaul the clemency laws with Democratic House members Cori Bush (Mo.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) to alleviate what they term the problem of mass incarceration. And he has tried to leave behind tensions with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Jeffries ally, in a 2018 Democratic primary in New York. Those tensions boiled over into a nasty Twitter fight between their offices in 2019.

But members of the Squad do not appear to be overly focused on the potential changing of the guard atop the party.

Two aides familiar with Squad members’ thinking said there is no interest at the moment in challenging or opposing Jeffries whenever Pelosi steps down, because they aren’t particularly interested in who holds titles in the caucus. They consider themselves their own power center, given their popularity with liberal voters, and feel they can push the agenda regardless of who is running the caucus, the aides said.

“The question is, are [leaders] going to take us seriously as newer members of Congress? That’s the question. Do we have the respect of leadership throughout the House and Senate and the White House, as newer members of Congress?” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.). “If we are a big tent as Democrats — which we are — like the country, every voice is as important as the next voice and we need to stop blaming progressives in the Squad for all of the problems of the Democratic Party, because that is not true.”

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During the recent tense debates over Biden’s infrastructure and domestic spending packages, Jeffries endeared himself to some members by being deferential to their concerns and allowing groups of moderates and liberals to hash out their differences directly.

“I think that leadership forgot and thought that they could arm-twist and use the same kind of rationale — to get people to go along to get along,” one Democratic member said of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn. “Someone like Hakeem was able to kind of jump into that void and say, ‘Let’s try and work this out. I hear you.’ I mean, it sounds like so overly simplistic, but it had gotten that bad.”

The impression members across the ideological spectrum have taken from their interactions with Jeffries is that he is a “great listener” who has often “gone to bat” for members behind the scenes. Democrats also view him as a sharp communicator, especially when attacking Republicans, something that could be a substantial part of the next Democratic leader’s job if the party winds up in the minority.

“He’s brilliant, he’s smooth, but he is fearless,” said a member supportive of Jeffries. “I mean, if we are fighting for something, I want Hakeem Jeffries on my side because he will go to the mat on an issue.”

Over the past several years, Jeffries and Reps. Katherine M. Clark (Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (Calif.) have been considered by their colleagues as the next group of leaders, given their diversity and current lower-level leadership posts. Members expect Jeffries to run for the top spot, while Clark would seek to be his second-in-command. A source familiar with the legislators’ intentions said they view their relationship as a partnership, something other members have noticed, given Jeffries closer ties to moderates and Clark’s to liberals.

“This is no time to speculate on future leadership elections,” Kathryn Alexander, Clark’s communications director, said in a statement.

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Aguilar, who serves as the Democratic caucus vice chair, has told members close to him that he hopes to run for the third spot in leadership, which could be majority whip or caucus chairman depending on whether Democrats keep the House.

There are other possible candidates just now mulling what they should do.

Jayapal has gained prominence this year for maintaining cohesion among members of the progressive caucus, which gave it more clout in negotiations with leadership over Biden’s agenda.

She has been making preliminary calls to her colleagues to express interest in running for a position, leaving the impression among some members that she would challenge Clark, who is also a member of the progressive caucus. But people familiar with Jayapal’s thinking say she has not decided which position she would seek.

“I think I’m going to look at any opportunities that are there,” Jayapal said when asked if she wants to be in leadership. “I think we need leaders who are diverse, who are new, who have fresh ideas, people who are organizers, and people who are disciplined and good communicators.”

Numerous members noted that they had either been reached out to by or heard that Reps. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), Debbie Dingell (Mich.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Schiff are interested in top spots.

All members interviewed agreed that Pelosi will be hard to replace, but some said that may be an opportunity as much as a problem.

“I think it will be important to have multiple strong leaders who get along well and are willing to share the workload, because Nancy Pelosi somehow does the job of 12 people, and I think there will be a benefit to splitting it up and sharing, especially when she’s had 20 years to perfect how she does things, make mistakes. That all just takes time,” one moderate Democrat said.

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