Nancy Pelosi has announced she will not seek another term as the top Democrat in the US House of Representatives, leaving the position after almost two decades following her party’s loss of its majority in the midterm elections.
Her decision paves the way for a contest at the end of the month to replace her, potentially ushering in a new generation of lawmakers to lead the Democratic party in the House.
Pelosi, who is 82, said she would not leave Congress altogether, but would continue to hold her seat in the House representing San Francisco.
“For me the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect,” she said. “And I am grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”
Pelosi has been a towering figure in American politics ever since she became the first woman to lead a party in Congress in 2003 and the first woman to be Speaker of the House in 2007.
She has been known for effectively commanding the different factions of the Democratic party, being a prodigious fundraiser and shepherding large and often controversial legislation through the House, whether her party controlled the White House or not.
During the financial crisis under George W Bush, she was pivotal in approving the Wall Street rescue plan, while under Barack Obama she steered his landmark healthcare reform despite heavy opposition.
During Donald Trump’s administration, she endorsed multitrillion-dollar Covid-19 stimulus bills and, most recently, helped Joe Biden enact his sweeping legislative agenda, on everything from climate action and infrastructure to chip subsidies and gun control.
While she is revered by many Democrats, she also became a lightning rod for vitriol from Republicans and conservatives as a symbol of the liberal, coastal politics they oppose and even despise.
Pelosi will be giving up her position as Democratic leader in the House after her party performed much better than expected in this month’s midterm elections. While Republicans regained control of the House, they did so by a much smaller margin than anticipated.
Ten days before the election in late October, her husband Paul Pelosi was attacked in their San Francisco home by David DePape, a 42-year-old intruder who was asking “Where is Nancy?” before beating her husband. DePape has pleaded not guilty after being charged with assault and attempted kidnapping.
During her speech on Thursday, Pelosi, who presided over the two impeachments of Trump and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, spoke repeatedly about the importance of defending American democracy.
“American democracy is majestic, but it is fragile . . . democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm”, Pelosi said. She added that in the midterm elections, when many Trump-backed deniers of Biden’s 2020 White House victory were defeated by Democrats, voters “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” — referring to a verse from the US national anthem.
On Thursday morning, Biden called Pelosi to congratulate her “on her historic tenure as Speaker of the House”, the White House said, and he later issued a statement. “Because of Nancy Pelosi, the lives of millions and millions of Americans are better, even in districts represented by Republicans who voted against her bills and too often vilify her. That’s Nancy — always working for the dignity of all of the people,” Biden said.
Hakeem Jeffries, 52, the New York lawmaker and chair of the House Democratic caucus, has long been considered a likely successor to Pelosi and the frontrunner if she were to step aside.
During her career, Pelosi has been an important player in US foreign policy, with the protection of human rights around the world one of her main causes. This year, she stoked controversy and tension with China after making the first visit to Taiwan by a House speaker since 1997.