House Democratic leaders maneuvered Saturday to lock down a lineup that would look exactly the same in the minority as it did in the majority, even as junior and disaffected rank-and-file lawmakers clamor for change at the top.
Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi averted a Wednesday showdown between her top two lieutenants by announcing that she will create a new post for Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was expected to lose a race for minority whip to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md. Clyburn would become "assistant leader" and would remain the third-ranking person in the Democratic leadership, Pelosi said in a letter to caucus members.
That may help Pelosi avoid a revolt from black lawmakers anxious to make sure that Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, isn't booted from the leadership or demoted in rank. Moreover, the deal does little to alleviate the frustrations of a scattered but sizable set of junior Democrats who believe Pelosi and her senior allies exercise too much control over caucus structures, including campaign, policy and committee-assignment apparatuses. Those lawmakers are working to rewrite internal rules to take power away from the septuagenarians who run the party.
"You have a bunch of senior citizens at the buffet at closing time, fighting over the last piece of meat," said one veteran Democrat who talked about the "frustration of the younger generation" of talent that's upset at the prospect of keeping "the status quo."
Both Hoyer and Clyburn endorsed the deal, but one member of the younger generation, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, told a local newspaper in his district, the Clay County Progress, this week that he would challenge Pelosi for the leadership. He had previously said he would challege her if no one else did.
Despite losing control of the House and likely more than 60 seats in all, Pelosi contends that forces beyond her control are to blame for Republicans' success at the ballot box earlier this month.
"The reason the election results are what they are is because we have 9-1/2 percent unemployment in our country. We didn't lose the election because of me," Pelosi told National Public Radio on Friday. "The reason they had to try to take me down is because I've been effective in fighting the special interests in Washington, D.C. I'm also the most significant attractor of support for the Democrats. So I'm not looking back on this. [Democratic colleagues] asked me to run. I'm running. And again, our members understand they made me target because I'm effective."
Indeed, Pelosi is a monster fundraiser, a favorite of nearly every identifiable Democratic interest group, and an indefatigable activist for her party's legislative and political goals.
It's a message that's resonating with liberals in her caucus and outside Congress, particularly those who blame the White House for failing to adequately communicate with the public about the benefits of major Democratic agenda items. And Pelosi, who has not drawn a challenger yet, appears poised to win election as minority leader in a caucus that has become more liberal because its electoral losses were heavily concentrated in centrist districts.
But she's not taking anything for granted. Pelosi won letters of support from EMILY's List, the Sierra Club and 32 House Democratic women on Friday. Her continued effort to demonstrate backing from core Democratic constituencies — and the strange late-Friday announcement of the agreement with Clyburn — led some Democratic sources to suggest she's not entirely comfortable with her standing right now. Pelosi's office put tremendous pressure on the women lawmakers to sign the letter, according to two party sources, and still didn't win the support of 18 House Democratic women.
There's a strong undercurrent of dissent building within Democratic ranks. It may not be enough to topple Pelosi or the other elected leaders — Hoyer, Clyburn, Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra of California — but Democratic insiders say diffuse calls for change could gather when lawmakers congregate in groups next week for the first time since the election.
Sources point to a handful of meetings this week that could lay the groundwork for a rebellion -— major or minor — against the existing power structure. For example, the chiefs of staff for members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition are scheduled to meet Monday, CBC members gather Monday night and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) has called for a discussion among midwesterners on Tuesday.
Kaptur and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) are authors of a letter calling on Pelosi to postpone Wednesday's party leadership elections — a proxy vote for whether Pelosi and her lieutenants have a problem on their hands.
Meanwhile, Blue Dogs are working on a series of potential rules changes that would tear away Pelosi's authority to essentially appoint the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the co-chairmen of the Steering and Policy Committee, which hands out legislative committee assignments to rank-and-file lawmakers.
Pelosi's control over campaign strategy has come under fire in the wake of the election, in part because she was demonized as a symbol of voter frustration with Washington. Her name and image were used in tens of millions of dollars of campaign ads in districts across the country, prompting some Democratic incumbents and challengers to declare they would not vote for her to lead their party in the next Congress. She is deeply unpopular with the public at large — including independents whose approval of her rests in the high single digits — though she won reelection overwhelmingly in her San Francisco-area district.
The Steering and Policy Committee, run since 2003 by Pelosi confidants George Miller (Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) despite a two-term limit, has been criticized for a perception that it rewards only Pelosi loyalists with choice committee assignments, leaving important decisions to an ideologically and politically monolithic group.
Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), who have said publicly that they do not support Pelosi's effort to transition from speaker of the House to minority leader, are among those drafting proposals to loosen Pelosi's grip on party leadership structures.
Pelosi's aides have not yet said whether she might embrace any of the proposals to give more influence to the caucus in choosing who will serve in secondary leadership roles.
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