Pelosi will stay around to lead House Democrats through the next election -- and perhaps beyond
By Edward-Isaac Dovere
She is planning to file and run for reelection in her San Francisco district next year -- at least for now -- in keeping with her pattern of deciding about staying in Congress after the elections, when she likely will have won an 18th full term.
And sources familiar with Pelosi's thinking say she isn't ruling out the possibility of trying to stay in leadership after 2022, despite her original vow to leave as the top House Democrat. She'll devote much of next year to raising money for Democrats as they try to hold their narrow majority, those sources tell CNN, adding to the nearly $1 billion her office calculates she has already raised for Democrats in her time as leader.
The months of tortuous negotiations over President Joe Biden's legislative initiatives are inspiring a contradictory mix of emotions. Many House Democrats are more eager than ever to see the California Democrat go and give way to younger leadership. But even many of those same lawmakers are terrified that, without her, they will be consumed by squabbling instead of fighting back against House Republicans at a moment when the fundamentals of American democracy appear to be on the line.
"Where do we go from here?" one member said, expressing the stress. "I don't know."
In a series of interviews with key aides and more than two dozen House Democratic members -- across age, ideology and geography, and including Pelosi supporters and critics alike -- a portrait emerges of a leader who still commands respect, and no small measure of fear, within her caucus. (Many of those members requested anonymity to speak frankly with CNN and did not want to anger Pelosi or be seen feeding a narrative about Democratic infighting.) She shepherded Biden's Covid-19 rescue plan last spring and his massive infrastructure plan this fall, and then delivered the most transformative social spending program in generations through her chamber. Each one could be a capstone to an already historic career.
Still, the speaker is also losing her grip on House Democrats. Interviews with her colleagues reveal a struggle to keep up with members who are less concerned with loyalty and allegiance and more willing to blow up negotiations for the sake of a boost on social media or TV. She faced repeated rebellions the last few months, they say. She rescheduled votes over and over because she couldn't get her caucus together -- as Biden and top White House aides lost patience with House Democrats' constant drama. She got so irritated with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal that she gave the Washington state Democrat the silent treatment for several days, according to several lawmakers who heard of it from the shunned colleague.
Admirers and detractors both confess to a sense of dread about what things will be like after Pelosi leaves. Her grip on House Democrats may be looser than it was, but whoever comes after her won't have anywhere near that control. And with everyone expecting her departure to come soon, many complained to CNN that she hasn't prepared her caucus for the post-Pelosi era, though she has worked to groom several of the top prospects to succeed her.
Pelosi declined an interview through a spokesperson, but a person familiar with her thinking dismissed any speculation she may bow out before the midterms. Pelosi insiders also shot down the idea that she's making some legacy-saving play to avoid handing over the gavel to Republicans again after losing the majority in 2010.
'We're eating our own'
But what's facing her caucus is evident in interview after interview, as they fight over everything from tax cuts to support for Israel to who gets to call themselves progressive and what Democrats really stand for. The divisions are wider and easier to see in the larger, more raucous House, but they're also obvious in the Senate, where Democratic leader Chuck Schumer deals with many of the same issues.
It's that last divide that was most laid bare in the fights over the two bills at the center of Biden's economic agenda this fall.
"We can keep saying our diversity is our power -- but guess what? I got more shit from my fellow Democratic colleagues over the past months than I did from the Republicans," said Rep. Kathleen Rice, a New Yorker who was an initial holdout over the costs of the infrastructure and social spending bills. "We're eating our own at a time when we should be doing everything we can to hold onto our slim majority. Progressives need to remember that Republicans are the ones who want to destroy our democracy, not moderates in their own caucus."
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a fellow New Yorker who beat a longtime incumbent in a primary last year to become a proud member of the House progressives, responded to Rice by saying he'd never attacked her -- though he had been critical of compromises during the negotiations, eventually voting against the infrastructure deal. Bowman said it's moderates like Rice who should catch up to a changed party, rather than blaming progressives. And he acknowledged that the factions often aren't even talking to each other.
"I agree we have to stop eating our own," Bowman said. "We just need to get to know each other and figure out how to work together, even though we represent different districts. It's not about Pelosi. We run our own offices. So it's on us to pick up the phone, reach out and say, 'Hey, let's have a conversation.'"
What House Democrats are dealing with is nothing like what's engulfing House Republicans, who have ignored anti-democratic, anti-science and racist elements in their own ranks and downplayed much of their colleagues' most controversial behavior. As much as Democrats argue with each other, they're not posting photoshopped anime videos of themselves appearing to kill their GOP colleagues or calling each other "trash" on Twitter.
But like their party as a whole, House Democrats are starting to look past their aging leaders toward an existential crisis about where they're going, how they'll function and what they believe in.
A season of tumult
This fall's fight to pass the Biden plans was beset from the beginning by infighting in Pelosi's ranks. The President -- a Senate veteran -- had deferred the House machinations to Pelosi, but she was unable to get the votes from her caucus for months.
In a promise to moderates, the speaker had set an end-of-September date to put the infrastructure bill on the floor, but she had to keep pushing it back as progressives threatened to tank it unless they got a vote on the broader spending package at the same time.
Finally, frustrated by the party's inability to come together, Biden made an October trip to Capitol Hill to talk to House Democrats, delaying his departure for Europe later that day. Pelosi felt that Biden flubbed the appearance by refusing to ask explicitly for the votes for the infrastructure package, according to people familiar with her thinking. After he spoke, she stood in front of him and told her members what he'd been trying to say.
"He's delayed his plane," she later told her colleagues, as one member recalled it. "We can either be the angels on his shoulder as he lands in Rome, or we can embarrass the President and bring great shame to our nation."
Progressives revolted anyway, despite her appeal and the President's visit. A few weeks later, when Pelosi pressed ahead for the final infrastructure vote, she leaned on her allies in the Congressional Black Caucus to help devise a strategy to get her caucus in line. Some progressives, however, cut Pelosi out of their conversations and dealt directly with Biden.
Several say they simply decided she hadn't been an honest broker for them, and that they ultimately voted yes not for anything she did but because of a last-minute call from Biden in which he said if they didn't vote yes, the whole Build Back Better agenda would lose its momentum and he'd have to move on. ("The country needs to see us get something done," he'd pleaded with them.)
Pelosi was insulted personally and on Biden's behalf that Jayapal had said her caucus members shouldn't vote for the infrastructure package even after that Biden meeting. Jayapal told several colleagues that Pelosi refused to talk to her for days after that. Pelosi had a dismissive view of Jayapal's role, according to those close to her, wondering what the point was of dealing with the progressive caucus leader when she couldn't deliver the progressive votes. Jayapal saw things differently: with 96 members, Pelosi would never be able to line up every demand, or every vote, from the progressive caucus. Eventually, all but six voted yes when the House passed the infrastructure bill in early November, corralled by Jayapal, but also by that Biden call.
Pelosi defenders argue that she changed strategy smartly, as the facts changed, and that's a mark of a leader who's learned how to navigate tough legislation through.
"She was like a trauma surgeon for these bills," said freshman Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts. "There were so many times -- sometimes multiple times a day -- when a bill was dead and she was able to put the paddles on and revive it."
Steve Ricchetti, the top Biden aide who was one of the main negotiators with Pelosi and other groups of Democrats, said the White House walked away from the infrastructure experience even more convinced of the speaker's unique ability to make things happen in the House.
"You hear the President say it all the time: Nancy Pelosi is the finest Speaker of the House in the history of our country," Ricchetti said. "Speaker Pelosi always comes through. She was the heart of our effort to pass infrastructure through the House, and there's just no one like the Speaker."
Others have a different view of Pelosi's command of the situation.
"She says a lot of things and doesn't seem to be able to deliver," said Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, referring to Pelosi's initial promise that the House would only consider the same version of the social safety net bill as the Senate. The thinking was that vulnerable House Democrats shouldn't have to cast politically risky votes -- essentially for nothing -- since the pricier version of the package wouldn't survive the Senate anyway.
But Pelosi explained to members that she changed her timeline because the Senate changed the overall scope and price of the package, and that she wasn't going to put a bill on the floor that would fail and embarrass the President -- even though that's exactly what some in her caucus wanted to do.
The House passed the infrastructure bill and the rule that would govern debate on the broader spending package late on a Friday night last month.
Pelosi held the infrastructure vote open until late as she urged members to vote and many of them refused to go to the floor.
What was widely reported when the bill passed -- with 13 Republicans -- in the middle of the night: spontaneous applause for Pelosi, celebrating a crowning achievement in her historic tenure as speaker.
But that's not the full story: a few House Democrats, a few drinks in, were amazed that they'd actually gotten it done, and were taunting Republicans at the back of the chamber. "F*** yeah," they said, not exactly summoning their inner Henry Clays. "We f***ing passed it, b*****s!" Colleagues egged them on. As some of those in the back of the room saw it play out, it was only as the claps and cheers worked their way to the front of the room that they morphed into a salute to the speaker.
'Trust among Democrats'
Pelosi has a simple response to complaints about how she navigated the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the social safety net package, which passed later last month, through the House. No one ever remembers the pain of childbirth, the mother of five likes to say; just the happy faces of the children once they're there.
Even those who ruefully chuckle at the thought of Pelosi staying on as leader wonder how they could pull off a similar feat without her.
She became an icon of the left in her late 70s, as both the face and the force of the opposition to Donald Trump's agenda, from the moment she put on her sunglasses, Matrix-style, walking out of a contentious meeting in the Oval Office, to when she tore up the text of Trump's final State of the Union address as soon as he finished delivering it.
Her high profile has made her a prolific fundraiser. As Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe was in a hotel across the Potomac watching himself lose the governor's race last month, Pelosi was at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the US Capitol headlining an event that raised $2.6 million for House Democrats' campaign arm, and matching it with a transfer from her own campaign account.
"She has a trust among Democrats," said Rep. Ro Khanna, prominent progressive from California, reflecting on the status the speaker has developed in the minds of donors, party activists and more beyond the Capitol. "They trust her judgment, and they trust her skill. Anyone who comes after her is going to have to earn that trust."
To the extent she's thinking about her legacy, Pelosi insiders say, she knows that it might look bad if the captain jumped ship before the red wave hit. Doing so, they fear, might raise Democratic despair and decrease big donations. Pelosi is too loyal to her own members to do that.
But while she rakes in the cash for them, she's not without criticisms of her caucus. Colleagues and others around her say she's told them she has been taken aback at how little loyalty House Democrats have had for Biden in working to his pass his agenda. Multiple members say she's seemed surprised by the lack of respect for her own authority too.
The next generation
Pelosi has been criticized for years for not doing more to raise up or promote the next generation of leaders. She has also declined to name a successor -- something that won't change, those close to her say, whether this is her final year or not. "Pelosi sees a responsibility to groom and advance the next generation of leaders but not to name a successor," said the person close to her. "That's up to the caucus in her view, whenever that may be."
One big name -- albeit from the same generation -- isn't angling for the job even if he would make history as the first Black speaker. "Being speaker is not in my plans," 81-year-old Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, told CNN. "At some point, I want to go to a rocking chair. At some point I want to have more time to play golf," he said, shooting down rumors he would vie for the gavel.
House Democrats are tired of the aging leadership of long-serving icons, but they don't yet trust anyone else to hold them together.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the caucus, is the most widely mentioned successor to Pelosi. The New York Democrat has worked his way up to be the fifth-highest ranking member of the caucus and has been lining up supporters without ever saying explicitly he's interested in the top job. In talking with colleagues, he's been citing Pelosi's top-down, insular approach as an example of what won't work without her as speaker -- and arguing that the next phase of Democratic leadership will have to be more inclusive and diffuse to make up for the lost relationships.
He touted the House margins on the infrastructure and social spending bill votes as "Pelosi's finest hour." As for the trouble keeping his caucus together, Jeffries argued that's just part of being a House Democrat, rather than a Republican. "Democrats are not a cult. We're a coalition," he said.
But several members who are already supporting Jeffries -- himself a member of the Progressive Caucus -- say they wonder if he'll face the kind of revolt of progressives that Pelosi held off. If so, that could line up support for Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the fourth-ranking Democrat, or Jayapal, who's been leaning into her profile-raising role in the infrastructure negotiations.
"Speaker Pelosi is masterful. She's done it for a long time. She knows exactly what the parameters are," Jayapal said. "But I also think that's an opportunity to bring new voices in and shape what the caucus looks like for the next generation."
Yet also standing as a possible successor is Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader who has built a reservoir of support and goodwill within the caucus. The Maryland Democrat is 82, though, and many Democrats say they're likely to opt for a new generation of leaders once Pelosi steps aside.
The next generation is also looking for an opportunity back home in California, where Pelosi is only the fifth person to represent her San Francisco district since Calvin Coolidge was president. If she quits after being reelected in 2022, that would spark a special election, much like the one she first won for the seat in 1987. Most political players in the area assume it could be a crowded race dominated by Christine Pelosi, the speaker's daughter, and Scott Wiener, a state senator who's been working his way up in city politics for the last decade, though forces in local politics are already gearing up to stop the younger Pelosi from winning it. Neither would comment on a hypothetical race.
"As you know," Christine Pelosi wrote in a text, "we have a very powerful sitting congresswoman and she's doing an excellent job!!"
Not all of her members agree, especially as cracks in the caucus emerge on everything from legislative priorities to how to deal with offensive comments from across the aisle. The debate over punishing GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert for Islamophobic remarks about Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar is just the latest tension between the desire to please the liberal base and the need to remain pragmatic. More than a few find it hard to be sympathetic to the Minnesota Democrat given her past comments that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic, and her regular criticism of fellow Democrats -- including voting against the bipartisan infrastructure package.
Multiple members have told Pelosi they won't vote for another censure resolution or even to strip Boebert, a Colorado Republican, of her committees, after voting in November to censure GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona over the anime video in which he appeared to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They don't want to give Republicans more precedent for censures if the GOP wins the majority. Pelosi, agreeing with many of these Democrats that another censure would only distract attention from the legislative achievements they're trying to sell ahead of the midterms, helped fast-track a compromise: they'll vote on a bill from Omar combatting Islamophobia this week, using that as a pressure valve to avoid the harder vote.
Still, several Democratic members argued that the post-Pelosi days will probably be easier to manage if, as most of the caucus now assumes, they end next year in the minority.
"That is a blessing in disguise for whoever succeeds Nancy -- because presumably on a lot of votes, we'll all be voting no," said one Democratic member. "I would be happy to have the problem of, 'How do we govern in our majority in the post-Pelosi world?' But I don't think we're going to."
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Jeffries' views on how caucus leadership will need to change after Pelosi steps down as speaker.
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