Almost exactly three years ago to the day, to derail a budding insurrection within her caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would step down from the top job after two more terms; that is, at the end of the current Congress.
Since then, Pelosi has been quiet about her intentions. No one, aside from the speaker herself, her closest family members, and her tightest circle of advisers, knows if she will make good on her earlier pledge. But a CNN story on Sunday by Edward-Isaac Dovere, reporting that Pelosi will in fact run for reelection, pushed the conversation to the front and center.
Apart from simply running or not running, Pelosi has several options available to her. She could:
There are as many different opinions about what Pelosi will do as there are people speculating, but few can argue with the conclusion that she’s one of the five most powerful and effective speakers in the 232-year history of the House. Put her alongside Thomas Brackett Reed (aka Czar Reed), Henry Clay, Joseph Cannon, and Sam Rayburn.
While other speakers have certainly presided over a House that passed more pieces of legislation or some very important pieces, no one has done as much with as little, passing very big packages often with very small majorities. For all of the talk about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, in 1933 FDR had 313 Democrats in the House, and in 1965 LBJ had 295. Pelosi has a bare majority of 222, many of them not terribly compliant. The political road is littered with people in both parties who underestimated Nancy Pelosi.
Whenever Pelosi does step aside, she may have eyes on keeping the seat in the family, paving the way for her 55-year-old daughter Christine Pelosi to win the seat. But open seats don’t come along often in one of the most Democratic cities in America, and there would likely be a crowd waiting to run.
On the leadership front, keeping a very low profile in all of this is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the 51-year-old, fifth-term member from New York City and the fourth-ranking Democrat. While others would no doubt emerge, the conventional wisdom (whatever that is worth) is that Jeffries would have the inside track to win the top job in a leadership election.
Then there is the Republican side of the aisle. While most of the scuttlebutt has been about whether either Minority Whip Steve Scalise or former Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry might take Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on for the party’s top job, lately a new contender has emerged: former President Trump.
Keep in mind that while all previous speakers have been members of the House, there is no constitutional requirement or House rule that requires them to be. Some members on both sides of the aisle that I have talked with in recent months think the idea is absurd; others wonder whether it might happen, given Trump’s increasingly cult-like hold on the GOP, particularly in the House. Would a majority of Republicans in the next Congress vote on a secret ballot in the GOP Conference for Trump? (The final vote on the floor with all 435 members participating is not a secret vote.) Would a majority publicly say they would not vote for him? Trump would be only the second person in U.S. history to have occupied the top job in both the executive and legislative branches; James K. Polk served, at different times, as both speaker and president.
McCarthy has assiduously stroked his conference members for years, catering to their every need, but would it be enough? Could McCarthy fend Trump off? Becoming speaker would not necessarily preclude a 2024 Trump presidential bid; in fact, it would give him a platform to be a thorn in President Biden’s side, without the wear and tear of racing around the country on an airplane. To a certain extent, until Trump’s intentions are fully known, he freezes the race, at least for any contender who wants a piece of the Trump base on their side.
Closing the loop, would Trump angling to become House speaker keep Pelosi around? The bad blood between he and Pelosi could not be worse; at one point in 2019, the then-Oval Office occupant yanked an Air Force plane away from the speaker as she was preparing for a trip to visit the troops in Afghanistan. The thought of Trump occupying the Speaker’s Chair would have to make her blood run cold.
We are living in a very odd world now. There is no telling what we will be thinking and talking about a week from now, let alone a year.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 14, 2021.
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