WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement Thursday that she is stepping down after two decades leading House Democrats represents the generational change that younger rank-and-file members had been demanding for years.
"For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect," Pelosi, 82, said in her floor speech.
Her top lieutenant, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, followed suit, saying he also would not run for leadership in the new Congress.
But Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina apparently didn’t get the memo.
The most powerful Black lawmaker and a close ally of President Joe Biden, Clyburn said Friday he is running to stay in leadership in the No. 4 spot as "assistant minority leader," rather than bow out or accept an emeritus or other ceremonial role.
Clyburn’s decision will keep him at the leadership table and has scrambled the calculus for some younger, ambitious leaders, disrupting party unity at a time when Democrats are celebrating better-than-expected election results.
“Pelosi and Hoyer showed a lot of grace in stepping aside,” one younger Democratic lawmaker told NBC News. “Everyone has their own style, but when it means others can’t ascend into leadership, then it seems a little bit unfair.”
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., 52, and Katherine Clark, D-Mass., 59, appear to have locked up support for the No. 1 and No. 2 leadership slots, minority leader and minority whip. Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., 43, a member of the Hispanic Caucus, had originally sought the assistant post, which had been considered the No. 3 job the last time Democratic were in the minority.
But with Clyburn seeking that job, it's become a game of musical chairs.
Aguilar said Friday he is now running for Democratic Caucus chairman. Under that scenario, Aguilar's caucus chair role would move up to No. 3 and Clyburn's assistant role would move down to No. 4.
Democratic leadership elections will take place Nov. 30.
The shifting roles create a predicament for another young, rising star in the party, 38-year-old Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., the son of Eritrean immigrants who served as a Democratic prosecutor during then-President Donald Trump’s second impeachment.
Neguse, who like Clyburn and Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, had begun his campaign to succeed the term-limited Jeffries as caucus chairman earlier this year. After months of reaching out to colleagues, he had that job mostly locked up. But with Clyburn going for the assistant job and Aguilar entering the race for caucus chair, Neguse could find himself the odd man out.
Neguse supporters are now urging him to stay the course and run for the caucus chair job anyway, even if it disrupts the fragile harmony between the Black and Hispanic caucuses and leads to the remote possibility that Black men could occupy three of the top four spots in a Democratic caucus that celebrates representation in leadership.
“Many of us, and I believe a majority of us, want to see Joe Neguse become chair of our caucus,” said another younger Democratic lawmaker. “We find it distasteful that Pete would even consider doing what Sean Patrick Maloney did to Mondaire Jones” — a reference to New York Rep. Maloney deciding to run after redistricting in a safer, neighboring district that had been represented by Jones, a Democratic colleague.
"It was the sense of the caucus that the three top leaders could provide counsel but would not have official leadership posts," the lawmaker continued. "Many of us think very highly of Jim Clyburn, but these complications will have potential to divide a remarkably unified caucus," the lawmaker said.
"A lot of members are upset" about the situation, added a member of the Hispanic Caucus.
Spokespeople for Aguilar, Neguse and Clyburn had no immediate comment.
One young Democrat, Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, said the party is rallying behind Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar.
"Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, Pete Aguilar — they have the full confidence of House Democrats. They are the next generation of leadership," Auchincloss, who is 34, said on CNN on Friday.
Neguse's options are limited: He could remain at the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which is considered part of the leadership team, where he is one of four co-chairs. But sources said Neguse won't jump into the crowded race for caucus vice chair, the No. 5 position in leadership, which already features Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa.; Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.; and Ted Lieu, D-Calif.
Pelosi and Clyburn backed the full slate of Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar on Friday, while Hoyer had endorsed Jeffries for leader on Thursday.
Clyburn, a beloved figure in Democratic politics and a former Black Caucus chairman, called his protege Jeffries “absolutely fantastic” and signaled support for the younger leaders seeking the reins of the Democratic leadership apparatus.
In a statement, Clyburn said he will do “whatever I can to assist our new generation of Democratic Leaders which I hope to be Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar.”
Said Hoyer: “Well, I think it’s always good for a party to have new blood and new invigoration, new enthusiasm, and new ideas.”
Asked how it felt to be leaving leadership after two decades, Hoyer replied with a chuckle: "Not good, not good."