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House Democrats look to a new generation of leaders after Pelosi's announcement

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A day after the midterm election results made it clear Republicans will control the House come January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed her own political plans.

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NANCY PELOSI: And with great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress. For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect.

KELLY: Pelosi, of course, has made history. She broke the so-called marble ceiling when she was elected the first female speaker in 2007. She returned for a second stand as speaker after her party regained control of the chamber in 2019. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. And, Deirdre, it's such a seismic shift coming on Capitol Hill. Tell us more about what Pelosi said today.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Definitely seismic - Pelosi has been in the leadership in the House for two decades, so this is really a sea change for Democrats and a passing of the torch for her. Democrats crowded onto the House floor earlier today to listen to Pelosi reveal her plans, which she kept very, very close to the vest. She called the Capitol the temple of democracy. She also took note of the change in the House during the arc of her own 35-year career for women.

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PELOSI: When I came to the Congress in 1987, there were 12 Democratic women. Now, there are over 90. And we want more.

WALSH: Pelosi also talked about working with three presidents. She name-checked Bush, Obama and Biden, but she left out the fourth - Trump. She gave a warning that democracy is majestic, but fragile. And she said the results of the election show voters rejected violence and insurrection. Pelosi also said she's going to continue to represent her San Francisco district in the House.

KELLY: So she's staying in Congress, just stepping away from this leadership role. But what was the reaction from her party - from House Democrats?

WALSH: You know, many expected Pelosi to step down after the midterms. When she was reelected as speaker in 2018, she made a pledge to her caucus to limit herself to four years. But there was a period after the better-than-expected results for Democrats in this year's midterms that she might stay. She's credited with fundraising for her party and steering the Biden agenda through the House with a very tight majority. Some Democrats I talked to today were emotional about the news, like Pennsylvania Democrat Madeleine Dean, who got choked up.

MADELEINE DEAN: I was crying sad tears and happy tears - sad that this season is ending, as she called it, and happy that I have had the privilege of working with her. I'm going to cry again.

WALSH: Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell talked about Pelosi's reputation as a political force.

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DEBBIE DINGELL: Look, I've been on both sides of Nancy Pelosi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

DINGELL: Much more - it's much more pleasant when you're on the good side of her. But she's tough. She listens. She delivers.

WALSH: Many Democrats used the same phrase over and over - historical figure.

KELLY: Hmm. So let's talk about the next chapter in the history of all this because Pelosi talked about a new generation - the next generation coming. Who are they?

WALSH: Right. Well, Pelosi wasn't the only Democratic leader to say they're stepping down from their leadership post. Her No. 2, Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, and No. 3, South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, also said they're going to remain in Congress, but work to help the new generation. We expect Hakeem Jeffries - he's a Democrat from New York - to be the front-runner to serve as House minority leader. Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark and California Congressman Pete Aguilar are running for top posts. I talked to another Democrat, Jamie Raskin, about the next generation and what they face in a Republican-controlled House.

JAMIE RASKIN: We are battle-hardened by what we've been through with Donald Trump. And so there are some very tough and resilient junior leaders here, and we'll all get a chance to be part of the new team.

KELLY: One of the voices today from Capitol Hill - thank you to NPR's Deirdre Walsh.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.