House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she would retire her leadership position inside the Democratic Party in the new Congress, making way for a new generation to steer the party after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives to Republicans in the midterm elections.
Pelosi announced she will step aside after leading Democrats for nearly 20 years.
The California Democrat, who rose to become the nation’s only woman to wield the speaker’s gavel, said she wasn’t quitting her job completely. She would work as the representative from San Francisco, a position she has held for 35 years, but only as a rank-and-file member when the new Congress convenes in January — an unusual move, but not unheard of in the past.
“I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” she said. “For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect.”
Now, she said, “we must move boldly into the future.”
Pelosi received a standing ovation after her remarks, and lawmakers and guests one by one went up to offer her hugs, many taking selfies of a moment in history. President Joe Biden spoke with Pelosi in the morning and congratulated her on her historic tenure as speaker of the House.
“History will note she is the most consequential Speaker of the House of Representatives in our history,” Biden said in a statement.
It’s a strange and unconventional choice for a party leader to stay on after withdrawing from congressional leadership, one that bucks historic norms. But former President John Quincy Adams served as a rank-and-file congressman after his presidency, so it isn’t completely unheard of.
During her remarks, Pelosi recapped her career, from seeing the Capitol for the first time as a young member of a political dynasty — her father was a former congressman and mayor of Baltimore — to serving as House speaker alongside U.S. presidents and doing “the people’s work.”
“Every day I am in awe of the majestic miracle that is American democracy,” she said.
Democrats cheered Pelosi as she arrived in the chamber at noon. On short notice, lawmakers filled the House, at least on the Democratic side, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined. He later joined a throng of lawmakers and hugged and kissed Pelosi on the cheek.
The Speaker’s Gallery was filled with both Pelosi’s staff and other guests. Some Republicans, including some newly elected members, also attended, though House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s seeking the speakership in the new Congress, did not.
Pelosi’s decision to finally step aside after decades on Thursday paves the way for House Democratic leadership elections next month when Democrats reorganize as the minority party for the new Congress.
Pelosi’s leadership team, with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, has long moved as a triumvirate. All now in their 80s, the three House Democratic leaders have faced restless colleagues eager for them to step aside and allow a new generation to take charge.
Hoyer said after Pelosi’s remarks that “it is the time for a new generation of leaders” and that he will also step down from leadership but stay in Congress. Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black American in Congress, has said he expects to stay in Congress next year and hopes to remain at the leadership table.
Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, and Pete Aguilar of California have similarly moved as a trio, all working toward becoming the next generation of leaders. Jeffries could make history if he enters the race to become the nation’s first Black speaker of the House.
After Pelosi spoke, Clyburn released a statement saying he looks forward “to doing whatever I can to assist our new generation of Democratic Leaders, which I hope to be Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar.”
One idea circulating on Capitol Hill was that Pelosi and the others could emerge as emeritus leaders as they pass the baton to new Democrats.
First elected in 1987, Pelosi has been a controversial figure in American politics, long ridiculed by Republicans as a San Francisco liberal out of touch with America. Her own Democratic colleagues have intermittently appreciated but also feared her powerful brand of leadership.
Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, saying she had cracked the “marble ceiling,” after Democrats swept to power in the 2006 midterm elections in a backlash to then-President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2018, when she was poised to return as speaker in the Trump era, she vowed “to show the power of the gavel.”
Pelosi has repeatedly withstood leadership challenges over the years and had suggested in 2018 she would serve four more years as leader.
But she had not discussed those plans more recently.
The Associated Press contributed to this article