WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she will not seek a leadership position in the new Congress, ending a historic run as the first woman with the gavel and making way for a new generation to steer the party after Democrats lost control of the House to Republicans in the midterm elections.
In a spirited speech on the House floor, Pelosi announced that she will step aside after leading Democrats for nearly 20 years and in the aftermath of the brutal attack on her husband, Paul, last month in their San Francisco home — and after having done “the people's work.”
The California Democrat, a pivotal figure in U.S. history and perhaps the most powerful speaker in modern times, said she would remain in Congress as the representative from San Francisco, a position she has held for 35 years, when the new Congress convenes in January.
“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.”
Dressed in white in a nod to the suffragettes, Pelosi was greeted with cheers as she arrived for the hastily called address. She received a standing ovation when she closed, lawmakers and guests one by one crowding her with hugs, many taking selfies of a moment in history.
President Joe Biden, who had encouraged Pelosi to stay on as Democratic leader, 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, noting her ability to win unity from her caucus and her “absolute dignity."
It’s an unusual choice for a party leader to stay on after withdrawing from congressional leadership, but not without precedent and Pelosi has long defied convention in pursuing power in Washington.
In an interview with reporters after her announcement, Pelosi said she won't endorse anyone in the race to succeed her and she won't sit on any committees as a rank-and-file lawmaker. She said the attack on her husband “made me think again about staying."
But in the end, after the election, she decided to step down.
“I quite frankly, personally, have been ready to leave for a while," she said. “Because there are things I want to do. I like to dance, I like to sing. There's a life out there, right?"
During her remarks on the House floor, Pelosi recapped her career, from seeing the Capitol the first time as a young girl with her father — a former New Deal congressman and mayor — to serving as speaker alongside U.S. presidents, noting three of the four, but not mentioning Donald Trump.
“Every day I am in awe of the majestic miracle that is American democracy,” she said.
At one point, she compared the better-than-expected showing for Democrats in the midterms, the first national election after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, as “proof through the night that our flag was still there,” drawing cheers from colleagues.
The American historian Jon Meacham helped Pelosi with her speech, but an aide said she added that impromptu line herself.
On short notice, lawmakers who have been waiting and wondering about the long-serving leader's plans 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 Pelosi's staff and 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, telling reporters afterward that he was “busy, unfortunately.”
Pelosi was twice elected to the speakership and has led Democrats through consequential moments, including passage of the Affordable Care Act with President Barack Obama and the impeachments of President Donald Trump.
Her decision 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 in the future if Democrats regain control, and he enters the race to become the nation’s first Black speaker of the House.
First elected in 1987, Pelosi was among a dozen Democratic women in Congress. She was long ridiculed by Republicans as a San Francisco liberal while steadily rising as a skilled legislator and fundraising powerhouse. 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.
When she was poised in 2018 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.
Typically unsentimental, Pelosi let show a rare moment of emotion on the eve of the midterm elections as she held back tears discussing the grave assault on her husband of nearly 60 years.
Paul Pelosi suffered a fractured skull after an intruder broke into their home in the middle the night seeking the Democratic leader. The intruder’s question — “Where is Nancy?” — echoed the chants of the pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol as they hunted for Pelosi and tried to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory over Trump.
David DePape is being held without bail on attempted murder and other charges in what authorities said was a political attack.
Historians have noted that other consequential political figures had careers later as rank-and-file members of Congress, including John Quincy Adams, the former president, who went on to serve for nearly 18 years in Congress.