Time is now ticking – and no one knows what Pelosi will do in 2022.
Confidantes of the 81-year-old speaker reject any rumors she might quit before the end of this Congress, saying doing so would only embolden Republicans and undercut her ability to raise millions to save her party’s imperiled majority. She has yet to say if she will mount a reelection bid next year, though her campaign continues to raise millions in case she runs for the seat she’s held since 1987.
While Pelosi has previously indicated that this is her last term as speaker, she hasn’t completely shut the door quite yet, fueling speculation she could ultimately seek to prolong her 18-year tenure ruling the House Democratic caucus.
Democrats and Republicans are watching her next moves closely, given that her decision would have a seismic impact across the political spectrum, fuel Democratic jockeying to replace her on Capitol Hill and prompt a scramble to replace her in her liberal-leaning district – potentially with one of her daughters.
“Everyone assumes this is her last term, but no one knows for sure,” said one of the confidantes, who asked for anonymity to discuss the speaker’s future candidly. “People don’t realize how hard it was to win (the speaker’s race) last time.” (Pelosi’s office denies that the race was difficult.)
The same source echoed the line of many of her other trusted allies: Stepping aside before the end of 2022 doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
“If she left early, she would be blamed for losing the House,” the source said. “She doesn’t want to look like a loser.”
Questions about her future come as she is shepherding President Joe Biden’s multi-trillion dollar agenda with the slimmest House Democratic majority in decades, while methodically building a huge war chest to steady Democrats’ shaky chances of keeping the House. The speaker might provide more clarity about her next steps later this year, once Democrats are through the heavy dose of legislating on enormous infrastructure projects and expanding the social safety net.
In San Francisco, a handful of prospective candidates are already seen as potential replacements, including one of her daughters – although no credible Democrat is taking steps in public to build a campaign yet.
On Capitol Hill, the speaker’s future is an issue that her top lieutenants are wary of discussing – even privately – worried that any hint of jockeying to replace her will create tension in the ranks.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat widely seen as her likely heir apparent, sidestepped questions when asked if he would support Pelosi again if she ran for speaker next Congress, saying Democrats are focused on advancing the Biden agenda.
“I’ll let the drama, in terms of internal House dynamics, exist over on the Republican side of the aisle,” Jeffries told CNN.
When asked if he would run for the top Democratic job if it opened up, Jeffries said: “We have a tremendous speaker, one speaker at a time, and we all stand strongly behind her.”
Confronting a daunting path ahead
While Pelosi remains mum about her own future, she is tapping into her massive donor network in a furious bid to keep their imperiled Democratic majority next year. She’s already raised more than $32 million in the first three months of 2021 for Democrats, part of over $1 billion she’s earned for the party in the past 20 years, as she counsels her allies to prepare in the off-year for an all-out war in the 2022 campaign year.
Those political efforts – along with going toe-to-toe with then-President Donald Trump and her history of muscling major legislation through the House – have helped her maintain a deep reservoir of support across the House Democratic caucus, though a small faction of both moderates and progressives is leery of seeing her leadership continue.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from a swing Virginia district, noted she’s voted against Pelosi for speaker twice and would do so again if she tried to run in 2023.
“If that’s the case, I’ll be three for three,” Spanberger said. “She’s previously said that this would be her last term as speaker so I suspect that she would stick to that. But since 2018, I think I’ve been consistent on the fact that I think we really need new voices spreading the word.”
On the left, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was lobbied by Pelosi’s allies to back her for speaker in 2021 and ultimately did, said the jury is out for 2023.
“I feel like just the history of the party overall has been to almost sideline progressive priorities, racial justice priorities, priorities for the working class, health care, et cetera,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN when asked about Pelosi. “And I don’t think that any selection of leadership should ever be a de facto thing.”
Ocasio-Cortez did not commit to supporting Pelosi again for speaker, saying that “a lot of it depends on the unique constellation of the caucus, at a given moment.”
“So it’s not just about an individual person,” the liberal Democrat added. “It’s about: Who is our caucus? What is the moment? And what is the alignment at that time.”
Yet even with some skepticism in the ranks, it’s clear Pelosi maintains the dominant position in her caucus – and would be the odds-on favorite to keep leading it if she wanted to, especially if Democrats managed to hang on to the House majority.
When asked if he’d support Pelosi if she stayed, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said: “Yep.”
But the No. 3 House Democrat was less clear when asked if he would seek the top job if she decides it’s time to hang it up.
“Good Lord, I was born and raised in South Carolina, you got to know I spent all my life contemplating,” Clyburn said of running to be House Democratic leader or speaker. “I’m still contemplating.”
Key legislative moment awaits speaker
Pelosi’s legacy as the first female speaker is assured. She is reviled by the right and beloved by many on the left for shepherding major legislation through Congress, including the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul bill, multi-trillion dollar bills to address a global pandemic and to twice impeach Trump.
Pelosi is now focused on two colossal priorities – passing the Biden administration’s $1.8 trillion plan to expand the social safety net and its $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure package – all with a single-digit margin of error. Some of her allies say the challenges in Congress are too great to discuss the issue of Pelosi’s future.
“She has shown enormous discipline and internal cohesion, even with a slimmed-down majority, in what is always a raucous group of people and contentious group of people to begin with,” said Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. “So I guess there may very well be a time where we are going to have to deal with the subject. But that’s not right now.”
Nadeam Elshami, a former top Pelosi staffer, told CNN, “It seems like sometimes people are more interested in her than in what she’s doing or what she’s trying to pass.” He said that her list of accomplishments are “mind-boggling”—and that the speaker is “amazing” at keeping her plans “close to the vest.”
“No one knows,” he added.
But some sources expect her to step down when this term expires in early January 2023, although no one is certain.
When asked if she had made a decision about running for reelection next year, Pelosi sidestepped the question.
“You know what, I’m going to have a town hall in San Francisco right now,” Pelosi told CNN last week, referring to a virtual event she was holding in her suite in her Capitol suite.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said: “The speaker is not on a shift, she’s on a mission.”
Her allies said it’s a decision she won’t reveal to anyone – not even close family members – until she’s ready to.
“There’s a lot of speculation from even her staff or friends of hers and they all mean well, but at the end of the day it’s her decision and she’s going to decide herself and no one’s going to change that,” said a former Pelosi aide.
The top three House Democrats – Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Clyburn – are 80 years old or older, and have held their roles for the past 14 years. It remains to be seen what Hoyer, her longtime No. 2, decides to do.
“Frankly, as you see on our side, nobody seems to be uncomfortable with the leadership,” Hoyer said when asked if he would consider a run for the job. “And I have not talked to the speaker about it. And I’m not thinking about it, so we’ll leave it till that bridge comes.”
Pelosi’s refusal to leave office may have motivated some potential successors to quit the House in the past. But Pelosi’s decision could finally allow someone from the next generation to take over. Jeffries, the 50-year-old No. 5 House Democrat, is viewed as the likely successor to Pelosi, but others, including California Reps. Karen Bass and Adam Schiff could potentially run for the gavel – while other ambitious members may emerge.
Her decision could also allow more junior members to take a step up the leadership ladder, including Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California.
“Yeah, with any of these you kind of serve at the pleasure of your colleagues,” Aguilar, the caucus’ vice chairman, said when asked if he’d look to move up. “I want to be in the House for a while, and I would love the opportunity to continue to work to be helpful.”
Pelosi’s daughter a possible contender for House seat
Back home, Pelosi’s retirement would spark an intense battle for a safe, long-awaited House seat. State Sen. Scott Wiener, former San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, state party vice chair David Campos, state Assemblymember David Chiu, Supervisor Matt Haney, and Pelosi’s daughter Christine, who’s active in the national and state Democratic party committees, are all viewed as potential House candidates if she leaves office, according to multiple California Democratic operatives.
Christine Pelosi has privately told allies she is interested in holding public office, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter, though she did not respond to inquiries seeking comment about her mother’s House seat. Some Democrats pointed to a possible candidacy of Mayor London Breed, but her spokesman said she would not run for Congress in 2022 if Pelosi decides to retire.
Pelosi will ultimately have to make a decision before the March 11 filing deadline to run for her House seat.
Even though Pelosi pledged years ago to not serve as speaker after this term, a decision to not run for reelection would still come as a shock to Democrats in a district that has long relied upon her.
“I mean, to me it would be, kind of, wow,” said Hene Kelly, a California Democratic Party activist who admires her.
There would be a number of considerations for a House primary in a deeply Democratic city, including ideology, experience, race, gender and sexual orientation. Kelly said people “probably would really want to have a woman” to replace Pelosi, and said “a lot of people are saying that they think” the speaker’s daughter would run.
But Sam Garrett-Pate, the communications director for Equality California, said “if and when” Pelosi decides to leave, the LGBTQ+ group is “hopeful” that Wiener would run, calling him a “principled, progressive champion.”
While these California Democrats maintained that they want Pelosi to serve as long as she’d like, some allies could not even entertain the thought of her leaving office.
And in Washington, some previous Pelosi skeptics are on board.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a blue dog Tennessee Democrat who has opposed her speaker bids in the past but backed her this year, called Pelosi “indispensable to the current Congress.” Asked about the next Congress, Cooper said she’s indispensable to “Congress, period. The Biden presidency really needs Nancy Pelosi as speaker.”
“She knows how to corral the caucus,” Cooper said. “And that’s one of the hardest things to do in politics.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.