WASHINGTON — House Democrats will elect their new leadership team Wednesday morning, ushering in a younger generation of leaders after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer decided to step aside after Democrats narrowly lost the majority this month.
Pelosi, 82, of California, the first female speaker of the House, will pass the torch to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., 52, who is running unopposed for minority leader and will make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead a political party’s caucus in either chamber.
“This is a moment of transition,” Jeffries told a small group of reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday night. “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but are also looking forward to being able to do what’s necessary at this moment to advance the issues.”
Jeffries’ top deputy will be Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., 59, a progressive who served under Jeffries as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and rose to assistant speaker this Congress. She is running unopposed for minority whip, the party’s top vote counter.
Rounding out the trio of new leaders is Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., 43, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member and former mayor who is running unopposed for Democratic Caucus chairman — the role Jeffries has held for the past four years.
The election of Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar represents a changing of the guard for House Democrats who have seen the powerful triumvirate of Pelosi, Hoyer, D-Md., 83, and Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., 82, occupy top leadership posts for the past two decades.
In recent years, younger, equally ambitious and talented Democrats looking to climb the leadership ladder discovered they had nowhere to go but out.
Democratic Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra took an appointment as California’s attorney general and then was named by President Joe Biden as health and human services secretary. Two of Pelosi’s loyal deputies in leadership, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, successfully ran for seats in the Senate once their options ran out.
Others, including Steve Israel of New York, who led both House Democrats’ campaign arm and communications shop, opted for retirement.
Of the current “Big Three” Democrats, only Clyburn, the current majority whip, has opted to stay in leadership in the new Congress. He will hold the job of “assistant leader,” which has been considered the No. 3 post in the minority in the past but will shift down to the No. 4 job this Congress.
Clyburn’s decision to stay has frustrated some younger members, who had hoped the new Congress would start with a clean slate. Because of Clyburn’s backing from the Congressional Black Caucus and other allies, it means one of the younger lawmakers won’t be able to rise to the No. 4 spot.
But Pelosi has pointed out many times that power is not freely given — one must “seize” it to get it. And no one in the caucus challenged Clyburn.
Both Pelosi and Hoyer won’t be going far. Rather than resign, the two said they will remain in Congress. And on Tuesday night, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee unanimously voted to grant Pelosi the ceremonial title of “Speaker Emerita.” The resolution bestowing the honor on Pelosi was offered by Jeffries.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi will go down as one of the greatest legislative leaders in American history,” said the Steering Committee Co-Chairs Eric Swalwell, Barbara Lee and Cheri Bustos. “By granting Speaker Pelosi this honorific title, we proudly celebrate her marble-ceiling-smashing and legendary public service.”
Asked about how his leadership style might differ from that of Pelosi — a shrewd legislator who ruled her caucus, at times, with an iron grip — Jeffries seemed to take a team-first view.
“The House Democratic Caucus is at its best when everyone has an opportunity to be on the playing field, playing the right position,” he said.
Jeffries dodged several questions about what it meant for him to be the first Black person to lead either party in Congress.
“I haven’t really had the opportunity to reflect on that,” he said, later adding, “to the extent that I spent any time dwelling on outside narratives or the magnitude of the moment, it would take away from having to make realtime decisions as we prepare to organize for the new Congress.”