The three top Democrats in the House — Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — are all in their late 70s. Mr. Conyers has been the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — either as chairman or ranking member — for 10 years.
And for many of them, the response to the Conyers imbroglio has been telling. Mr. Conyers has denied all the charges, but under pressure, did relinquish his post. Mr. Clyburn suggested that for all he knew, “all of this could be made up.”
Ms. Pelosi, the minority leader, swiftly called for an ethics investigation last week after news broke that two aides had accused Mr. Conyers of sexual harassment, and that he had paid a settlement to one. By Tuesday afternoon, she was working quietly behind the scenes with Congressional Black Caucus members who were trying to persuade Mr. Conyers to resign, according to a senior Democratic aide. His lawyer said he had no immediate plans to do so.
But her path to that point has been meandering. Ms. Pelosi offered an awkward defense of Mr. Conyers on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, saying, “Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country.” That earned her scathing reviews.
Melanie Sloan, a respected ethics lawyer in Washington who worked for Mr. Conyers in the mid-1990s, was so incensed by the performance that she called Ms. Pelosi’s staff and reminded them that Mr. Conyers had verbally abused her and had once summoned her to his office while he was wearing his underwear. That prompted Ms. Pelosi to switch course again.
“I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing,” she said in a statement. “I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
Another Conyers staff member, Deanna Maher, came forward Monday to tell The Detroit News that Mr. Conyers had made unwanted sexual advances toward her three times.
Younger Democrats have been far less equivocal than their leaders. Representatives Kathleen Rice of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington say Mr. Conyers should resign.
Mr. Jeffries, who said he supports Ms. Pelosi’s leadership, is among a number of House Democrats who lamented in interviews that the party must have a reckoning over the way it promotes younger, newer members.
Ms. Pelosi has been pushing in various ways to create opportunities for less senior members. As part of that effort, Mr. Jeffries, along with Representatives David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Cheri Bustos of Illinois, now lead the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. The group is charged, in part, with revamping the messages Democrats use to appeal to voters.
Representative Beto O’Rourke, Democrat of Texas, said that even after three terms in Congress, he feels frustrated by a Democratic Party that seems wedded to older members and stale ideas. He said he has tried to make the best of his time by working on veterans and armed forces issues, but he will relinquish his seat next year for a long-shot run at Ted Cruz’s Senate seat.
In so doing, he is following the path of other rising Democratic stars, such as Rahm Emanuel and Chris Van Hollen, who left the House to pursue other political posts.
“There’s not really a path or the means to really reflect the diversity in ideas and geographical representation and tenure of service,” said Mr. O’Rourke, who was among 63 Democrats who did not support Ms. Pelosi’s bid to be re-elected as minority leader last year.
Mr. O’Rourke said Republicans do a better job of promoting younger members, in part because they limit, to six years, the length of time a member can be chairman or chairwoman of a committee. Democrats do not impose term limits on committee leaders or so-called ranking members, the top slot for lawmakers who are in the minority.
Representative Donald S. Beyer Jr., a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, added that if Democrats want to appeal to young people, young people need to be at the forefront of leadership.
“The best organizations are the ones that blend the éminence grise wisdom with the energy of young men and young women,” he said. “I’m not sure we do that very well.”
But Democrats must be careful if they decide to shake up the seniority system, said Representative Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat who is in her third term on Capitol Hill.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus are concerned that their members might be pushed out of top positions on committees — including Homeland Security, Financial Services, and the Education and the Work Force committee — if Democrats change seniority rules.
“I want to make sure we continue the diversity we have in the Democratic Party,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York and a member of the black caucus. “A way that African-Americans and Hispanics particularly have able to been make sure that they have been in committee leadership positions is that there has been a seniority system.”
The leadership has been making changes to the party structure since 2016, when Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio challenged Ms. Pelosi. His campaign pushed Ms. Pelosi to back a number of changes, including creating vice ranking member slots on each committee for younger members.
“It’s been no secret that I think we need new people stepping up across the board in the party providing leadership,” Mr. Ryan said.
As vice ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Jamie Raskin, a freshman Democrat from Maryland, has managed floor debate on nine bills, he said.
Mr. Jeffries worries that as lawmakers debate the direction of the party and the rules for its leadership, they will lose sight of their broader mission.
“The worst thing we could do right now is conduct ourselves in a circular firing squad based on a generational divide,” he said. “We should be united and disciplined in executing the mission of taking back the House, because nothing less than the future of the country is at stake. Period. Full stop.”
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