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As Pelosi’s historic reign as speaker ends, House Democrats prepare to pass the torch

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was cheered Thursday after she announced that she would step down from her leadership position.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi strode into the Capitol on Thursday morning ready for a momentous announcement.

Wearing a suit in crisp white, the color of women’s suffrage, she ignored reporters’ questions whether she would reveal if she would remain as leader of the House Democrats or step aside after two decades at the helm and allow a new generation to take charge. Even her colleagues did not know what she would say.

At noon, they packed the House chamber for a speech with all the trappings of a valediction. Most of her fellow Democrats from California sat in the first two rows as Pelosi delivered the news that she would step down as the first — and to date only — woman speaker.

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Although she will remain in the House representing San Francisco, her glass ceiling-shattering career as one of the most powerful holders of the gavel ever will end when she steps aside and the Democrats slip back into the minority next year.

“The hour has come for a new generation to lead,” the 82-year-old Pelosi said. Shortly after, her two top deputies, also in their 80s, announced they too would step down from their leadership positions, and the process of passing the torch began.

That new slate of the party’s House leaders is widely expected to include Representative Katherine Clark of Revere. Currently the assistant speaker and fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, the 59-year-old Clark is poised to continue her rapid rise into the number two role in leadership elections scheduled for the end of November.

New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, 52, appears set to take over as the top Democrat, which will make him minority leader in the next Congress after Republicans won a slim majority in the midterms. California Representative Pete Aguilar, 43, is expected to round out a younger and more diverse top three for the Democrats.

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Pelosi acknowledged and celebrated the changing face of Congress in her speech.

“When I came to the Congress in 1987, there were 12 Democratic women,” she said. “Now, there are over 90. And we want more.”

Congressional candidate Nancy Pelosi waved at the campaign headquarters in San Francisco, April 7, 1987.PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press/File

The House chamber was full of Democrats, with staff members standing in the back and lawmakers spilling over into the Republican side of the aisle for better seats. Almost none looked at their phones, fixing their eyes on Pelosi as she spoke. Only a handful of Republicans showed up for the event, including two from California and one member of Republican leadership, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise. Snubbing the event was Pelosi’s rival and the man seeking the gavel from her: Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

The rapt attention was punctuated by several standing ovations throughout her 15-minute speech, with one that included the few Republicans in the audience in response to her mention of her husband, Paul, who was attacked with a hammer in October by a home invader allegedly motivated by right-wing conspiracy theories.

It was an emotional moment for House Democrats, many of whom are close to Pelosi and never served under another Democratic leader.

Worcester Representative Jim McGovern, one of her powerful allies, said his college-aged daughter texted him during the speech about her sadness at Pelosi’s departure and admiration for her breaking through the glass ceiling.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi held up the gavel surrounded by children and grandchildren at the US Capitol in Washington, Jan. 4, 2007. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/Associated Press/file

Pelosi, the daughter of a politician and former House member, became the first woman to ever lead a party in Congress in 2003 and then the first woman speaker in 2007. She led the Democrats to the majority twice, regaining the gavel in 2019 after eight years in the minority. She was a crucial partner to two Democratic presidents and a persistent foil to two Republicans. Her major accomplishments included shepherding the Affordable Care Act through the House under President Barack Obama and the American Rescue Plan under President Biden.

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As she left the House floor moments after Pelosi’s speech, Pennsylvania Representative Madeleine Dean did little to contain her emotion.

“I’m crying tears of joy,” Dean said. “Joy that this country has had her leadership, and joy that I had the chance to work with her.”

But while no Democrat wanted to step on Pelosi’s moment, the jockeying to replace her was well underway.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 5, 2019. Doug Mills/NYT/File

Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar have been quietly maneuvering into position for months, as expectations swirled that Pelosi would step down and the two octogenarians serving behind her, Representatives Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, would follow suit.

Pelosi had made a vague pledge four years ago to give up the party leadership after the 2022 midterms, regardless of their outcome, but had kept her intentions secret until her speech Thursday. Shortly after, Hoyer put out a statement saying he would not run for leadership again, and Clyburn openly endorsed the three leaders-in-waiting, though he is expected to seek a lower-level leadership position.

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None of those three Democrats have officially announced their candidacies, but New Hampshire Representative Annie Kuster said there are no other candidates for each position. Clark praised Pelosi on Thursday.

Nancy Pelosi at 17 with then Senator John F. Kennedy.Nancy Pelosi/Facebook

“I, like so many in Congress, am lucky to call Speaker Pelosi a friend and mentor,” Clark said in a statement. “Her legacy will continue to guide us, and her achievements will continue to inspire women and girls around the world.”

But Pelosi’s job isn’t over quite yet.

In the coming weeks, she will seek to pass one last federal budget bearing her fingerprints, a hugely consequential negotiation that will determine whether the new Congress takes over in January with an immediate and potentially paralyzing spending fight or has months to find its footing.

And Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn will remain in the House, barely offstage while the new Democratic leaders try to establish their reign.

But lawmakers downplayed the possibility their continued presence will hinder the incoming leadership.

“She has always emphasized respect for the seat, for the speakership,” said New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 33, a progressive who represents a younger generation of lawmakers and at times has clashed with Pelosi. “I don’t think that this is necessarily about, if they’re staying, if there’s a specter — I really do believe that much of the power is in the speakership and in the seat itself.”

McGovern said the House would continue to draw on the expertise of Pelosi and her former lieutenants.

“Somebody else will be speaker, but I mean, why wouldn’t we be excited about keeping people who have been effective leaders and who have this great institutional knowledge?” he said. “We could benefit from that.”

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Many of the lawmakers who know Clark best see a lot of similarities in her to Pelosi.

“I think she understands what 218 means,” said Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, referencing the number of House seats required for the majority. “We need that in leadership. Pelosi always understood that. You can make the best arguments in the world. You need 218 to implement them.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left after reading a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2019. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File

He added of Clark: “She’s going to be smashingly successful.”

Kuster, who shares an apartment with Clark in Washington, said she and Pelosi have a leadership style built on respecting members, including them in the process, and empowering them to contribute. She said that model was behind the tears that welled up for her during Pelosi’s speech.

“She can be steely, and she can be warm,” Kuster said of Clark. “I think what [the emotion] was about is that Speaker Pelosi and Katherine Clark show all of us . . . that this is a legitimate style of leadership that is very effective. And that’s just so exciting for me to be able to say to the world, ‘Yeah, we got this.’ ”

Globe correspondent Shannon Coan contributed to this report.


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her @talkopan.