House Democrats, preparing for what may be the slimmest majority in two decades, re-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi as their leader on Wednesday by voice vote, formally nominating the California Democrat for another term as speaker, which she later suggested could be her last.
Ms. Pelosi, 80, still has to secure 218 votes on the House floor to become speaker come January. But she is on track to do so, with some of the Democrats who opposed her acquiring the gavel in 2019 now lining up behind her and others packing up their offices after losing.
At a news conference after Democrats convened virtually to pick their leaders, Ms. Pelosi said it was still her intention to abide by a commitment made in 2018 to step aside as speaker after two more terms. She left room for herself to change course, but the implication was clear that the coming term was likely to be her last after nearly two decades as Democratic leader and that she intended to help cultivate the next generation of leadership.
“If my husband is listening, don’t let me have to be more specific than that,” she teased. “We never expected to have another term now. I consider this a gift. And I can’t wait to be working with Joe Biden and preparing us for our transition into the future.”
She added, “I don’t want to undermine any leverage I may have, but I made the statement.”
Democrats also re-elected for another term Ms. Pelosi’s top deputies, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 81, as majority leader and Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, 80, as Democratic whip.
But the caucus’s actions on Wednesday made clear they were assembling a new cohort of leaders in waiting to succeed them.
The Democrats re-affirmed Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the leading contender to succeed Ms. Pelosi, as their chairman and elevated Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, a progressive, to be assistant speaker, the party’s No. 4 position, over Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Mr. Jeffries, 50, and Ms. Clark, 57, have a close relationship and are likely to ascend together.
“This is the moment for America to unite together and finally build a nation that fulfills our promise of justice for all,” Ms. Clark said. “We cannot settle for normal, but must instead expand the parameters of prosperity to ensure everyone has the same opportunities for success.”
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. congratulated Ms. Pelosi in a phone call on Wednesday and told her he was looking forward to working together on responding to the coronavirus and improving the economy, his office said.
Ms. Pelosi will face a unique challenge come January with little room to maneuver between the party’s feuding progressive and moderate wings as she works to deliver Mr. Biden’s agenda.
Democrats’ failure to defeat a single Republican incumbent as they lost at least eight of their own transformed what was a comfortable 232-to-197 advantage into what is likely to be Democrats’ thinnest margin since World War II. With a handful of races still to be called, Democrats will probably control around 222 seats, allowing no more than a few of their members to defect on any given vote.
“The theme, I think, of what we do next has to be about justice,” Ms. Pelosi told fellow Democrats in private remarks after the votes, according to an aide. She added that “it has to be about justice” in the economy, the justice system, the environment and health care.
Ms. Pelosi’s re-election on Wednesday came one day after Republicans chose Representative Kevin McCarthy of California to again serve as minority leader.