Briefing

'Madam Speaker': A look back at some of Nancy Pelosi's most notable moments

Two decades, four presidents, and an unmatched legacy in Washington

After nearly two decades at the helm of the House Democratic caucus, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) announced on Thursday that she would be stepping down from her role, paving the way for a new generation of Democratic leaders to ascend in her wake. 

Pelosi, who has served in Congress since 1987, not only presided over some of the most consequential moments in modern legislative history, but ensured a legacy as a groundbreaking lawmaker herself, becoming Congress' first-ever female speaker in 2007. Among Democrats, she's viewed as a master tactician and hard-nosed realist who is often left at uncomfortable odds with her party's younger, more radical left flank. For Republicans, Pelosi's tenure in Washington has become an object of intense derision, with many seeing her as emblematic of liberal hypocrisy and excess. 

Throughout it all, Pelosi has been a unique witness to — and crafter of — the political landscape of 21st-century America. As she prepares to step back from her position within the uppermost echelons of Democratic power, here are just some of the notable moments from her momentous era of leadership:

2007: Madam Speaker

Four years after becoming the first woman to lead either major political party in Congress, then-House Minority Leader Pelosi made history in 2006 when she was unanimously nominated by her caucus to become the incoming speaker of the newly Democratic majority House. Two months later, in the early days of 2007, she defeated Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) 233-202 in a full House vote for the speaker's gavel.

Acknowledging the historic nature of her new position, Pelosi told her colleagues in a victory speech that "it is a moment for which we have waited over 200 years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights. But women weren't just waiting. Women were working. Never losing faith, we worked to redeem the promise of America, that all men and women are created equal. For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling."

2010: The Affordable Care Act

Of all the legislative accomplishments of Pelosi's tenure in Congress, perhaps the most vivid was the 2010 passage of then-President Obama's signature Affordable Care Act. Faced with the prospect of a Republican filibuster in the Senate, White House officials — most notably advisor and then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — argued any push for comprehensive health-care reform would need to be scaled back, and done in smaller, individual stages.

Pelosi, however, reportedly criticized the White House as being "incrementalist" and interested in passing "kiddie care." She then shepherded a more robust version of the bill through the House to ultimately pass by the narrow margin of 219-212. With an eye toward the bill's place in the legislative history, she prefaced the vote by telling the House "we will be joining those who established Social Security, Medicare, and now, tonight, health care for all Americans."

She would later express both pride and regret at what became known as "Obamacare," telling reporters in 2013 that "it was a heavy lift to pass. I myself would've preferred single-payer or public option, but this was a compromise, this is a compromise."

2017-2020: The Trump years

For nearly a decade, Pelosi and House Democrats had been the minority party due to Republican gains fueled in part by the Obama administration and its health-care bill. While fending off challenges from both her party's left and right flank over Democratic congressional losses that some attributed to her leadership, Pelosi was largely put in a reactive position, unable to lead any significant legislative agenda — although still capable of framing the national conversation, as she did in her record-setting eight-hour floor speech on immigration. 

Then, buoyed by blowback against the Trump administration and the broader Republican control of Congress, Democrats were voted into the House majority, and Pelosi was again given the speaker's gavel after intense lobbying and a promise to give up her leadership role after four years. As speaker during the Trump administration's later half, Pelosi served as the most visible and effective Democratic foil to the president, where her political acumen was bolstered in the public eye with a series of high-profile, and easily meme-able, victories over the president and his legislative agenda — particularly a 2019 government shutdown negotiation, and ensuing punitive floundering by the White House. 

Earning the moniker "crazy" Nancy from Trump, two of Pelosi's most memorable moments during that administration came during the State of the Union speeches over which she presided. In 2019, a photograph of her clapping after Trump's address earned viral notoriety for seemingly presenting her as patronizing the president, while the following year she was attacked by conservatives for tearing up her printed copy of Trump's speech once his remarks had ended. 

2020-2021: Impeachment, insurrection, and impeachment again

With Donald Trump the only U.S. president to be impeached twice during his term in office, Pelosi — as speaker of the House during his administration — is similarly the sole member of Congress to have presided over two impeachment proceedings.

When House Democrats adopted two articles of impeachment against Trump for his efforts to solicit damaging information on then-candidate Joe Biden in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Pelosi was heralded in The Washington Post as "the most powerful House speaker in at least 25 years and, some historians have argued, possibly since Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) ran the House in the 1940s and 1950s."

That Trump was subsequently acquitted in the Senate may well have contributed to his behavior leading up to and during the Jan. 6 insurrection, following his 2020 presidential election loss. Then, animated by the outgoing president's false claims of a "stolen" election engineered against him on the part of Democrats, a mob of Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol complex, actively singling out Pelosi as one of the primary targets of their rage — even as she worked to secure the building in order to proceed with the vote certification of Joe Biden's victory.

After unsuccessfully demanding that Trump be removed from office under the 25th Amendment by then Vice President Mike Pence, Pelosi moved ahead with her second impeachment effort, swaying 10 Republicans to join her Democratic majority in adopting a single article of impeachment for "incitement of insurrection." In a statement shortly after the ultimately unsuccessful impeachment proceedings were initiated, Pelosi described the events of Jan. 6 as "the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a president" and "clearly deserving of conviction."

"A president must be held accountable from their first day in office until their last day in office," she added. 

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