By Richard Cowan and Moira Warburton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Nancy Pelosi, the trailblazing Democrat who as the first woman U.S. House of Representatives speaker shepherded landmark legislation and led two impeachments, said on Thursday she will give up her leadership role a day after Republicans secured control of the chamber.
Pelosi’s allies quickly rallied around Representative Hakeem Jeffries as her likely successor as the top House Democrat while Republicans prepared to install a speaker from their party who is expected to impede President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. Her replacement will have to unite fractious House Democrats torn between centrists and an increasingly vocal left flank.
An 82-year-old California liberal, Pelosi made her announcement during a speech on the House floor – drawing applause from Democrats even as many Republicans decided not to attend. She said she will not retire from the House but continue to represent San Francisco as she has done for 35 years.
“For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect. And I’m grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility,” said Pelosi, who has served as the top House Democrat for two decades and speaker from 2007-2011 and again from 2019 until the present.
Pelosi played a central role in shepherding the legislative agenda of two Democratic presidents through Congress, even as she was vilified by many conservatives. She helped pass President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 healthcare law as well as expansions of infrastructure and climate spending and gun regulations under Biden. She also presided as the House impeached Republican President Donald Trump in 2019 and 2021.
Biden in a statement called Pelosi “the most consequential speaker of the House of Representatives in our history.”
House Democrats are set to vote on their leaders on Nov. 30. Jeffries, of New York, would be the first Black lawmaker to lead one of the major parties’ caucuses in Congress. The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, endorsed Jeffries for the top leadership post and decided not to seek a leadership role in the next Congress.
Jeffries, 52, declined to comment on his plans, telling reporters: “Today is a day to celebrate the speakership of Nancy Pelosi.”
Following last week’s midterm elections, Republicans on Wednesday finally nailed down a slim majority in the House for the next Congress to be sworn in on Jan. 3 and offered initial support for Kevin McCarthy, who has had chilly relations with Pelosi, to serve as speaker. McCarthy did not attend Pelosi’s speech.
Democrats retained control of the Senate. With a divided Congress, passage of even critical legislation like government funding could be tricky. Republicans said they plan to use their House majority to launch investigations into Biden’s administration and family.
Pelosi, holding a post second in the line of succession to the presidency, delivered a sentimental speech calling the House chamber “sacred ground” and remembering visiting the Capitol for the first time as a child when her father was sworn in as a congressman.
She recounted working with three presidents – Republican George W. Bush as well as Obama and Biden. She did not mention Trump but she alluded to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by his supporters.
“American democracy is majestic, but it is fragile. Many of us here have witnessed our fragility firsthand, tragically, in this chamber. And so democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi also noted the increase in women and minority lawmakers since she joined the House in 1987. She was the highest-ranking and most powerful elected woman in U.S. history until Kamala Harris became vice president in January 2021. She also helped the party to stem its losses during the midterms, when Democrats lost fewer seats than expected in the House.
Pelosi had been under pressure over the past few years from younger House Democrats to yield power. The party’s aging leadership has raised questions about its future even as Americans are living longer. Biden himself turns 80 on Sunday.
Ahead of her announcement, Pelosi had said the Oct. 28 assault on her husband Paul by a politically motivated hammer-wielding intruder in their San Francisco home factored in her decision.
Democrats appeared to be lining up for an orderly transition that would see Jeffries as Democratic leader and Representatives Katherine Clark, 59, and Pete Aguilar, 43, filling out the top ranks of leadership.
“It’s pretty much general agreement about who the next leaders will be. I know all of them, they’ll do a good job,” Representative Bennie Thompson told reporters.
The current No. 3 House Democrat, James Clyburn, 82, will likely stay on in an advisory role, several Democrats said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Moira Warburton, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)