WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement on Thursday that she would step away from the leadership ranks set in motion a long-anticipated generational change in leadership for House Democrats, with a younger group of lawmakers set to take the mantle from the three octogenarians who have for years led the party in the House.
For two decades, Ms. Pelosi of California, 82, and Representatives Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 83, the House majority leader, and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, 82, the Democratic whip, have remained at the top of their party in the House, freezing out dozens of ambitious junior lawmakers who were eager to ascend to more senior roles. Some left the House altogether rather than wait years for a chance to ascend, while many others have stayed, waiting less and less patiently for the day when Ms. Pelosi would step aside and make way for fresher faces.
Now, the old guard is heading out, and a new one coming in.
In announcing her plans, Ms. Pelosi said it was time for a younger crop of leaders to emerge, and Mr. Hoyer quickly followed suit, throwing his support behind Representative Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, 52, who is widely seen as her likeliest successor as Democratic leader.
Mr. Clyburn, who is also expected to cede his position in favor of a lower-ranking spot, according to people familiar with his plans, left his intentions vague on Thursday. But he pointed to a new generation of leaders, saying he looked forward to Mr. Jeffries and Representatives Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, 59, and Pete Aguilar of California, 43, as the new top Democrats in the House.
The three lawmakers have formed a tight alliance in the last two years in the more junior ranks of leadership and are widely viewed as the sole contenders for the top three slots in the caucus. House Democrats are scheduled to meet on Nov. 30 to elect their leaders for the next Congress.
The three were careful on Thursday to avoid openly articulating their leadership ambitions on a day focused on Ms. Pelosi’s legacy. Leaving the House chamber after she delivered her emotional speech announcing plans to exit as a leader, Mr. Jeffries brushed aside questions and declared it “the day to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a leader for the ages.”
“We’ll see what happens as we move forward,” said Mr. Jeffries, who, if elected as Democratic leader, would make history as the first Black person in the top leadership position in either chamber.
But the three lawmakers have been quietly laying the groundwork to move up.
It would be a dramatic generational shift from a leadership team of octogenarians to lawmakers in their 40s and 50s.
Democrats on Thursday were still processing the change.
“There’s a lot of different emotions,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York. “This isn’t just about any speaker handing over a gavel. This does open the door to many dynamics that I don’t think any one member is fully aware of.”
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Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said she was not yet ready to throw her support behind Mr. Jeffries. “I’m just processing what just happened,” she said. “There is a lot of healing that needs to be done in our caucus.”
Ms. Pelosi has helped elevate the three younger lawmakers in recent years, as calls grew for a change in Democratic leadership. Mr. Jeffries was among the impeachment managers who made the case to convict former President Donald J. Trump on charges of obstructing Congress and abusing the power of his office, at one point dropping a quote from the rapper Biggie Smalls, a fellow Brooklynite.
Mr. Aguilar currently serves on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. And in the tense moments when Democrats were divided over how to move forward with their legislative agenda, Ms. Clark was repeatedly in closed-door meetings in the struggle toward a compromise and worked to build relationships across the caucus.
Ms. Pelosi is “a once-in-a-century kind of figure, but there are other great leaders here,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, who, at 59, qualifies as something of a whippersnapper in an aging Congress. “We are battle-hardened by what we’ve been through with Donald Trump, and so there are some very tough and resilient junior leaders here.”
Mr. Jeffries has served as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, rarely straying from a disciplined series of messaging points and emerging as one of Mr. Trump’s most outspoken critics. He once called Mr. Trump the “grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” in a reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
The highlight of Mr. Jeffries’s legislative record is bipartisan sentencing reform, and he is regarded as more moderate than Ms. Pelosi, a proud liberal who counts the Affordable Care Act as her biggest legislative accomplishment. He has resisted policies like the Green New Deal that are the top priorities of progressives, who are an important power center among House Democrats.
Still, Mr. Jeffries has the support of another influential bloc of Democrats: the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members began publicly championing him for the leadership role on Thursday.
“I believe that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus would vote for Hakeem Jeffries,” said Representative Joyce Beatty, the chairwoman of the group. “He has galvanized us, he’s worked alongside with Speaker Pelosi, he’s been mentored by Jim Clyburn, and I think he’s ready.”
Ms. Clark first came to Congress after winning a special election in 2013 to represent the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts, after holding several roles in the state’s government. She has climbed the ranks of leadership in recent years — snagging a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — and has aligned herself with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
She has also traveled across the country to visit districts and campaigns, as well as aiding efforts to shore up congressional security as individual lawmakers raised concerns about the uptick in political violence across the country.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Representative Ann McLane Kuster, Democrat of New Hampshire, wiping away tears as she spoke to reporters about Ms. Clark, her roommate in Washington. “People don’t realize that it’s still hard for women.”
“Think how many male statues are in this building,” she added. “And here are these women like ‘OK, I’ve got this. I can do this.’”
Mr. Aguilar has framed his rise to become the highest-ranking Latino in Congress as the fulfillment of the American dream, describing his upbringing in a blue-collar family as his grandfather worked in the cafeteria in the San Bernardino Courthouse. Mr. Aguilar served as the mayor of the Redlands before successfully flipping a California seat in 2014.
As a member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, he led a hearing examining Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign against his vice president, Mike Pence. And as he worked to elevate his profile further, Mr. Aguilar spent the summer recess on the road, campaigning for lawmakers in two dozen races over six weeks.
The expected elevation of Mr. Jeffries, Ms. Clark and Mr. Aguilar would allow several other lawmakers to step up into more senior roles in the caucus.
Among those who have expressed an interest in the expected vacancies are Ms. Beatty and Representatives Joe Neguse of Colorado, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Ted Lieu of California.
“It is a time of incredible opportunity,” Ms. Dean said. “I’m not somebody who is afraid of change, change that will help others to grow, and of course, help us succeed here.”
Luke Broadwater and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.