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We the People: Pelosi’s likely retirement leaves lawmakers jostling to replace her as House speaker

Nov. 28, 2021 Updated Sat., Dec. 4, 2021 at 12:11 p.m.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presides over House passage of President Joe Biden’s expansive social and environment bill on Nov. 19 at the Capitol.  (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presides over House passage of President Joe Biden’s expansive social and environment bill on Nov. 19 at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is the name of the speaker of the House of Representatives now?

On Jan. 3, 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi made history when a majority of the House of Representatives chose her as the first woman ever to serve as speaker of the House. Since then, few people have wielded as much power on Capitol Hill as the California Democrat, who served as speaker until 2011 and again since her party retook the House majority in 2019.

Now, with Pelosi widely expected to retire when her current term in office expires, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are jostling for a chance to succeed her in 2023.

House speaker is an unusual position in federal politics. While the vice president officially presides over the Senate, the Constitution stipulates only that members of the House “shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers,” without defining what the speaker’s role should be. Over time, however, it has become a powerful position with control over which bills are brought up for a vote and a “bully pulpit” comparable to the president’s ability to influence policy through public statements.

Pelosi said in 2017 she would have retired had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election but instead stayed in office and successfully defended the Affordable Care Act from GOP efforts to dismantle the bill, also known as Obamacare, during Donald Trump’s presidency. But with Republicans favored to retake the House majority in next year’s election, the San Francisco lawmaker has signaled she may not run for re-election.

At age 81, she is part of a Democratic gerontocracy – along with 79-year-old President Joe Biden, 82-year-old House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the relatively youthful Senate Majority Leader, 71-year-old Chuck Schumer – that Democrats are anxious to replace with a new generation of leadership. But while Pelosi has mostly succeeded in holding together the party’s moderate and progressive wings, her departure could leave a void both factions are eager to fill.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who has chaired the House Democratic Caucus since 2019, is widely seen as Pelosi’s most likely successor, but some more left-wing lawmakers are pushing for Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who has gained prominence in this year’s intraparty wrangling over the Build Back Better Act, a roughly $2 trillion package of social programs and climate measures the House passed Nov. 19.

Regardless of who succeeds Pelosi as the top House Democrat, her most likely successor as speaker appears to be Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, now the House GOP leader. But McCarthy faces a similar challenge, holding together a Republican Party divided over fundamental issues like the seriousness of the Jan. 6 ransacking of the Capitol.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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