By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters)—U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold that influential post, said on Thursday she will step down as the Democratic leader in the chamber a day after Republicans secured a narrow majority following the midterm elections.
Pelosi, an 82-year-old liberal from California, has served two stints as speaker. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York may seek to take her place as the top Democrat in the House and said she planned to stay in Congress to provide guidance to her successor. Jeffries would be the first Black lawmaker to lead one of the major parties' caucuses in Congress.
Pelosi received cheers from her fellow Democrats as she took her place in the House chamber to make the announcement and throughout her remarks.
She called the House chamber "sacred ground" and the "heart of American democracy." She recalled visiting the Capitol for the first time as a child when her father was sworn in as a House member. She said that the chamber represented "the people's house" and had done "the people's work."
"American democracy is majestic but it is fragile. Many of us here have witnessed our fragility firsthand, tragically in this chamber. And so democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm," Pelosi said, alluding to the attack on the Capitol last year by former President Donald Trump's supporters.
"We the people—one country, one destiny," Pelosi added.
Pelosi also noted the increase in the number of women serving in the House since she first joined it 35 years ago.
Republicans on Wednesday were projected to win control of the House following last week's congressional elections, giving them a narrow majority in the chamber that will enable them to impede Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate.
Pelosi has played a central role in getting Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative agenda through Congress, as she did previously for Democratic President Barack Obama. She helped pass Obama's signature 2010 healthcare law as well as major expansions of infrastructure and climate spending under Biden. She also presided over the House when it twice impeached Trump and has been a regular target of criticism from U.S. conservatives.
Pelosi, who has held her San Francisco-based seat since 1987, has been under pressure during the past few years from younger House Democrats to yield power. She was the highest-ranking and most powerful elected woman in U.S. history until Kamala Harris became vice president in January 2021. House speaker is second in the line of succession to the presidency.
Pelosi in recent days had said the Oct. 28 assault on her husband Paul by a politically motivated hammer-wielding intruder in their San Francisco home, as well as other factors, would impact her decision on whether to keep her leadership role.
House Democrats are set to vote on their leaders on Nov. 30.
On Wednesday, House Republicans offered initial support for Kevin McCarthy to serve as speaker when the next Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3.
Jeffries, 52, would herald a new generation of leadership for the Democrats. Pelosi's decision also may have a bearing on whether outgoing House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, and Democratic Whip James Clyburn, 82, will seek top Democratic positions in the new Congress that convenes on Jan. 3.
Clyburn said he planned to stay in leadership but did not know what position he would fill.
"It's up to the caucus," Clyburn told reporters.
Biden turns 80 on Sunday. The aging leadership of the Democratic Party has raised questions about its next generation even as Americans are living longer.
Pelosi was first elected to the House in a special election and steadily moved up the ranks, securing leadership positions before winning her first term as speaker in 2007.
She first served as speaker from 2007 to 2011 as Democrats rode opposition to the Iraq war to control of the House. She became speaker again in 2019 when Democrats rode a wave of opposition to Trump to win control of the House and was re-elected as speaker in November 2021.
Republican control of the House, projected on Wednesday, gives that party not only the ability to rein in Biden's agenda but to launch potentially politically damaging probes of his administration and family.
McCarthy, also from California, currently serves as House Republican leader and will face election by the entire House at the start of the new year. It was not yet clear if he will win enough backing of fellow Republicans to win the speakership.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub and Susan Heavey; writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone, and Mark Heinrich)