The Missouri congressman’s decision comes on the heels of Tuesday’s election in which Republicans took back the Senate and strengthened their majority in the House.
Gephardt told Democrats he would not seek a fifth term as leader during a conference call early Thursday.
Two Democrats immediately threw their hat into the ring to fill the post, and the contest is already shaping up as a battle between the party’s liberal and centrist wings. A vote is slated for next Thursday.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the second-in-command under Gephardt, said Wednesday that she is interested in the top job.
“To win back the House in 2004, we need a unified party that will draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and that espoused by the Republicans,” she said.
Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), third-ranking in the leadership, held a press conference to announce his candidacy, differentiating himself from Pelosi’s more liberal wing of the party.
“Now our party must make a choice, must decide whether we want to speak to the broad center of the country, or whether we want to speak to only a narrow spectrum of the country,” he said.
Frost labeled Pelosi as being too left of center to lead the party, saying some Democrats were “very uneasy about the party moving sharply to the left.”
The new Democratic leader is expected to wield diminished influence in a Congress more closely connected to the agenda of President Bush.
Gephardt’s departure is also being seen as perhaps an early move to position the Democratic Party for the 2004 presidential elections. While Gephardt has not recently expressed specific presidential ambitions, he did run for the party’s nomination in 1988, and appeared on the verge of announcing his candidacy for the 2000 election in 1998.
Gephardt, 61, was elected Democratic leader in the aftermath of the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and defeat of former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.). In his eight years at the party’s helm, Gephardt struggled to keep a diverse caucus together on issues ranging from tax cuts to international trade and the recent debate over possible military action in Iraq.
His Republican counterpart, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), is almost reassured of remaining speaker of the House now that the Republican majority has been strengthened.