Nancy Pelosi sidestepped a question this week about whether she wants to continue leading House Democrats after November – but her own members are divided about whether they’d let that happen.
In interviews with more than two dozen House Democrats, a consensus is emerging: If they lose the majority, there would be overwhelming pressure for Pelosi to go, a prospect that Democratic sources say the powerful House speaker is keenly aware of.
But with polls and fresh momentum giving House Democrats some sparks of optimism about the midterm elections, multiple members say they are also starting to see how, if they do hold control, it could lead to Pelosi extending her time in power. Yet Democrats are split about that possibility, with a sizable contingent eager for new leadership regardless of the outcome, even if she’d be the heavy favorite to hold onto the gavel.
The 2018 deal Pelosi agreed to with dissident members limiting her to four more years as speaker was an informal agreement, and caucus rules were never changed imposing any time limits on her tenure. Several members told CNN that if the midterms go well for their party, a combination of shocked euphoria and deference to both her fundraising prowess and the importance of female voters, could make them reconsider.
Several noted, though, that a surprising victory in holding the majority might be the perfect time for the exit that Pelosi has said she originally planned to make six years ago if Hillary Clinton won the presidency, and that any decision to stay would have to come with a clear timetable for leaving.
Democrats are not on the same page about the sensitive topic.
“I support Pelosi,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Texas Democrat who owes Pelosi for helping him win his primary. “I’ll support her for whatever position.”
“I think if we win the House, she’ll deserve it – it’s as simple as that,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, Texas Democrat.
But if they lose majority?
“The dynamics change,” Gonzalez said. “I think it changes the game.”
Other Democrats say it’s time for new leadership no matter what happens in November.
“It’s time for generational diversity of our leadership ranks – regardless of the outcome of the election,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat who voted for Pelosi for speaker, calling her “one of the most extraordinary speakers in history.”
“That doesn’t change my perspective that it’s time for a new generation,” Phillips said, noting that is a widespread view within the caucus.
Privately, the assessment tends to be blunter.
“She has to go,” one senior Democrat said. “No way she can stay,” added another long-time House Democrat. “She doesn’t have the votes,” another veteran Democrat said, pointing to some vulnerable frontline Democrats who have vowed not to vote for her.
Indeed, all this is running up against deep tensions among House Democrats, and in their party overall, that they’re overdue for major changes in their leadership. Yet Pelosi’s two deputies, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who, like the speaker, are north of 80, have surprised colleagues by privately signaling they might be interested in succeeding her if and when she leaves.
Not everyone is on board with that idea.
“I certainly have long thought it’s time for new leadership,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat from a New Jersey swing district, who didn’t vote for Pelosi in the speaker’s election last year. “She’s done an incredible job, but we really do need to grow new leaders. When you have the top three people in our caucus in their 80s. … There does need to be a new generation coming up and starting to lead. And that’s something that I think the Democratic Party shouldn’t be afraid of.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been critical of Pelosi in the past but has since worked out a more collegial relationship and voted to elect her as speaker, said she also hopes to see change in leadership after the midterms – but stopped short of calling on the speaker to retire.
“I think if we’re in a minority then I think that the desire for change will be broader, potentially within the party. But I think that desire exists,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We saw and heard that desire in the last two terms that Democrats were the majority, so it really is just a question of, not if people want that, but how many?”
Rep. Andy Kim, a vulnerable New Jersey Democrat, said that if Pelosi were to attempt to stay as leader, he believes it would go against the commitment made in 2018, even if it weren’t written in stone.
“I thought we had an agreement in terms of leadership and tenure,” Kim said when asked about the prospect of Pelosi staying. “I have an understanding of where I think this needs to go: We stick with what we agreed to before.”
A number of Democrats believe that Pelosi is almost certain to leave and that she hasn’t fully shut the door because she doesn’t want to look like a lame-duck as she travels across the country to raise staggering sums of money to save her thin majority. Moreover, after a productive legislative session – that saw enactment on major issues on climate change, infrastructure and gun violence legislation – plus a high-profile visit to Taiwan amid tensions with China, many see her final moves as a capstone on her historic run atop the House as the first female speaker.
“I feel very comfortable about what they are proposing,” Pelosi said in 2018 after reaching a deal with Democratic dissenters to limit her tenure to four more years as speaker. “And I feel very responsible to do that, whether it passes or not.”
Term limits for the top three Democratic leaders never were adopted.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, long seen as Pelosi’s likeliest successor, has kept a busy schedule in recent weeks in person, over the phone and on Zoom calls, and will be making another trip this weekend – to Iowa as a featured guest at the traditional Democratic Party steak fry fundraiser at the invitation of endangered Rep. Cindy Axne. California Rep. Adam Schiff, a close Pelosi ally, has also been traveling the country and fundraising on behalf of colleagues as he’s been exploring a leadership run and meeting with members about it.
Dems jockeying behind the scenes
But Hoyer, who’s been waiting out Pelosi for decades, has privately indicated to allies that he would run for the top job if Pelosi bowed out, according to multiple Democratic sources.
Hoyer wouldn’t confirm or deny those conversations.
“I don’t think we’re ruling out anything,” Hoyer said. “We’re focused on winning the elections.”
It has long been viewed within the caucus that Hoyer would step down when Pelosi did. And several younger members expressed confusion that the 83-year-old moderate longtime leader would try to stand in the way of generational change in leadership, especially if that pits him against Jeffries, who is African-American and 30 years his junior.
Clyburn has privately expressed waves of interest in making history as the first Black speaker – despite telling CNN late last year that was not in his plans – but is seen as more willing than Hoyer to take an emeritus-style leadership role than to stand in Jeffries’ way. Likely, that question would be resolved internally first within the large and powerful Congressional Black Caucus.
“I have not made any decisions,” Clyburn told CNN this week.
Pelosi has been sticking to her well-known bullishness about Democrats’ prospects, and her own sense of them. At a news conference on Wednesday, she looked out at the gathered reporters and said, “Even though there are some among you who belittle my political instincts and the rest, I got us here twice to the majority. And I don’t intend on giving it up.”
When pressed on whether she would answer the question on whether she would seek another term as speaker, she refused to entertain it.
“No. I said first we’re going to win. And that’s really the issue,” she said. “Are we speaking a different language? First we win, then we decide.”
One source close to Pelosi believes the speaker has yet to decide what she might do if Democrats keep control of the House.
Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for the speaker, offered a stock answer when asked about speculation about her future: “The Speaker is not on a shift. She’s on a mission.”
Yet to continue her mission she may have to win over some dissenters.
Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a vulnerable Democrat who has criticized House leadership in the past and hasn’t backed Pelosi for speaker, said she’d like to see a change in her caucus’ leadership after November.
“I’ve always felt we need new leadership,” Slotkin said. “I also understand that leaders don’t – no leader I’ve ever worked with – says that they’re leaving long, long before they actually leave because you lose all your power.”
Ultimately, though, many Democrats say it’s Pelosi’s call.
“Should Democrats retain control of the House in the 118th Congress, I am going to be with Nancy Pelosi for as long as she wants to be here,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat. “I think that when she leaves, she should be given the opportunity to resign in dignity. It will be her decision, in my opinion.”