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McCarthy skips Pelosi's retirement speech as some Republicans pay grudging respect

Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to take Pelosi’s gavel, said he “had meetings” and suggested she should have made the announcement during votes.

WASHINGTON — When Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her retirement from congressional leadership on Thursday, the House chamber was packed with Democratic lawmakers in anticipation of the announcement from an icon of American politics.

The Republican side of the chamber was largely empty.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is eyeing the speaker's job after his party captured the majority, was nowhere to be seen. Asked why he skipped her speech, McCarthy said: “I had meetings. But normally the others would do it during votes. I wish she could have done that — could have been there.”

Minority Whip Steve Scalise was the only member of the GOP's upper echelons to be sitting in the chamber. The Louisiana Republican, who is a survivor of political violence, stood up to applaud when Pelosi mentioned her husband Paul Pelosi's recovery from a brutal assault during a recent home invasion.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranked member of the caucus, who has described herself as an "ultra-MAGA" Republican, had nothing positive to say about Pelosi after her announcement.

The Pledge of Allegiance, moments before Pelosi made her announcement, was led by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who became infamous in 2009 when he yelled “you lie!” to then-President Barack Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress.

Among the few Republicans in the chamber were Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa.

“She’s got quite a legacy, that’s for sure," he said afterward. "She’s an incredibly strong lady, hard worker, determined; certainly proved to be an excellent leader for her Democrat Party. I disagreed with her probably 98% of the time,” he said. “But you’ve got to respect what she’s done. I was here because it was historic. The first woman speaker of the House and now, stepping down for the second time. So she’s quite a lady — and I don’t necessarily mean that always in a positive way.”

Over her two decades leading the Democratic caucus, Pelosi has become a top target of Republicans, frequently featuring in election-season attack ads and becoming synonymous with the progressive values that have become an object of derision on the right.

Some Republicans couldn't resist taking a parting shot at her:

Far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. — who is locked in a tight re-election battle in her Republican-friendly district and has not yet been declared the winner — also took a parting shot at Pelosi.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has served in the Senate for 40 years throughout Pelosi’s tenure, said Thursday, “I’m sure it’s a personal choice, and everybody’s entitled to their personal choice.”

Grassley, who at 89 was just re-elected to a fresh six-year term in the Senate, praised the “historical role” Pelosi has played in American politics. “She’s the first one since 1952 or ‘53 that was able to not be speaker and come back and be speaker. And that historical role speaks for itself. She sticks to it,” he told NBC News.

“I’ve had the capability of having a few one-on-one conversations with her in regard to legislation, and I found her very helpful and cooperative and willing to listen,” Grassley said. “And she’s helped me with some of my victories.”

While Democrats quickly flooded Twitter with lengthy, heartfelt statements praising her kindness and leadership, Republicans remained largely silent about Pelosi on social media.

In the moments during and after Pelosi spoke, some prominent GOP members like Scalise and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., were tweeting about the party’s planned probe into Hunter Biden, the president’s son, while Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chimed in to condemn the Biden administration’s spending and border security measures.

Pelosi ended her speech with an appeal to patriotism and the perseverance of American democracy.

“A new day is dawning on the horizon,” Pelosi said. “And I look forward — and always forward — to the unfolding story of our nation. A story of light and love, of patriotism and progress, of many becoming one.”

A few hours after the speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had not yet commented. He released a statement Thursday evening congratulating Pelosi on “concluding her historic tenure” as House Democrats’ leader. “The Speaker and I have disagreed frequently and forcefully over the years, but I have seen firsthand the depth and intensity of her commitment to public service,” he said.

Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said Pelosi “said appropriate things” in her speech, speaking both to “her base” and to “middle America.”

“It's really just a changing of the guard. It's history being made,” Burchett said. “We don’t agree on anything. And I went up and talked to her, and she hugged my neck, and she asked me how my little girl Isabel was doing. She has a granddaughter named Isabel.”