Here’s what we know about the brewing House Democratic leadership struggle, and how the situation emerged.
The short version is this: By losing the Speakership, Democrats lose a leadership position. If the hope is to transition the current leadership team over into the minority, somebody’s gotta go. Nancy Pelosi’s apparently angling for that person to be current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
At a long meeting between Pelosi and Hoyer after the election, Hoyer and Pelosi discussed the issue of Democratic leadership extensively, according to a democratic aide and a member of the Democratic caucus.
As recently as last night, Pelosi was saying publicly that she hadn’t even really had time to think about whether to fight for the top slot in the House Minority. But clearly that wasn’t quite the case.
“She was under increasing pressure to piss or get off the pot,” the Democratic member said. “She wanted to get a respectful distance from the debacle of Tuesday.”
She kept her final decision very close to her chest.
“There was a leadership call at 10:30 this morning, there was no real indication of what she was going to do,” said another Democratic aide.
Her thinking is pretty straightforward, according to Democratic sources.
“Most members agree Nancy has earned the right to decide whether to stay in the leadership,” the lawmaker said, adding that Hoyer had been pretty clear in the past that he would not challenge Pelosi to be Minority Leader. If everybody were to just take one step down the ladder, that would mean Hoyer would become the Minority Whip. But Pelosi wants current Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) to keep his role when the Democrats become the minority party, which would box Hoyer out.
A Democratic leadership aide insists that the Pelosi and Clyburn decisions were not coordinated.
Part of the reason, according to a third Democratic aide, is that Hoyer and Pelosi still don’t really get along. But it’s more complicated than just personal rivalries. For one thing, after Tuesday’s losses, Hoyer doesn’t really represent a significant portion of the caucus anymore.
“Hoyer’s hand got much weaker,” the lawmaker said. The Democrats became a smaller party Tuesday, but they also became more liberal. In a meaningful way, the leadership team Pelosi imagines — herself, Clyburn, and Conference Chair John Larson — matches the liberal bent of the new party. “You’d have a pretty liberal leadership for a pretty liberal caucus,” the member said.
Not everybody’s pleased by the power play.
“If she decided to stay she should have told the leadership that everybody worked hard and should stay and move down the slots,” said a senior Democratic aide.
And a fifth aide — this one for a more liberal member — says it’s a bad strategic move.
“Having her as the face of our caucus will not help us to recruit moderate democrats in swing districts for 2012, which is where we need to go to win back the majority,” the aide said. “She presided over the biggest defeat of our caucus in over 50 years based in no small part because of her tactics.” He added:
Don’t get me wrong, she’ll go down as a great Speaker in some respects (no one could have pulled health care back to life the way she did), but she overreached in many ways. She made many vulnerable members walk the plank on votes she knew would never become law (cap and trade). She also forced them to vote on liberal versions of major legislation with the reasoning that it would “give us an upper hand in conference”, knowing we would give away the farm in the end anyway. As a result vulnerable members made tough votes that ended up costing them their careers.
Chris Van Hollen — the outgoing DCCC chair who had the tough job of leading the Democrats into battle this fall is laying low but is generally on Pelosi’s side.
“Congressman Van Hollen is focused on providing support and resources to our candidates in still undecided races,” says his spokesman Doug Thornell. “As he has done for the last four years, Van Hollen is going to fight to the very end for every single House Democrat. Over the last couple of days he has been getting lots of inquiries about his future from his colleagues who are encouraging him to stay in the Democratic leadership and appreciate his hard work under historically difficult political circumstances.”
What we’re left with is a situation where either Clyburn or Hoyer has to drop out of the race for Whip; or a weakened, but more senior, Hoyer will square off against Clyburn, who has strong support among progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s reminiscent in many ways of the losing battle Pelosi fought to make now-deceased Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) her Majority Leader in 2006. Except this time the conference is smaller and the dynamics favor her.
Either way, the fight could be brutal.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.