Pelosi Prevails in Bid for Minority Leader, but Caucus Unrest Remains Unresolved
November 17, 2010
By Alan K. Ota
House Democrats have chosen to stick with their current leadership team in the next Congress, but that decision has not quieted internal discontent over the management and ideological tilt of the caucus.
Having re-elected Nancy Pelosi of California as their leader for the Republican-controlled 112th Congress, Democrats will turn their attention on Thursday to possible changes in caucus rules that are being promoted by centrists to weaken Pelosi’s authority.
Pelosi defeated Heath Shuler of North Carolina for the post of minority leader, 150-43. Shuler, a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, decided to challenge her for the post when no one else stepped forward following the Nov. 2 elections in which Democrats lost control of the House.
Before that showdown, a group of 68 Democrats — a mix of liberals and moderates making up more than one-third of those voting — supported a motion to delay the elections until Dec. 8 to give party members more time to assess their situation. The motion was rejected, but the debate cast a spotlight on Democratic unease.
Shuler and his allies vowed to continue to press for a larger role for moderates in key leadership decisions — a demand that could delay further organizing activity until after Thanksgiving, when Congress is slated to resume the lame-duck session Nov. 29.
Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, Henry Cuellar of Texas and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin urged support of Pelosi. But Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike Ross of Arkansas and Larry Kissell of North Carolina promoted Shuler.
Shuler drew support from a number of moderates, such as Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. “We need a new face for the caucus. We need to change,” Lipinski said.
Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri backed Pelosi: “I like Shuler a lot. But I think she will do a good job,” he said.
Pelosi’s victory did not end the revolt. Several moderates, including Matheson, said they would vote for Shuler, not Pelosi, when the House elects a new Speaker in January. Republican John A. Boehner of Ohio, endorsed Wednesday by his enlarged GOP caucus, is all but guaranteed to win that vote.
Pelosi’s critics included liberals who wanted to delay the vote and moderates who wanted to nudge the agenda to the center. “I’ve said I can’t support Pelosi for minority leader today. But I might be able to support her in December,” David Wu of Oregon said.
The Pelosi vote came after four hours of emotional discussion, largely focused on whether to delay the leadership elections.
At the end, senior Democrats confirmed that Matheson had worked out a deal with party leaders to allow the full caucus to consider several amendments to caucus rules aimed at making a number of positions subject to caucus election, not appointment by Pelosi.
The proposals called for the election of the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and four top positions on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee — two co-chairmen and two new vice chairmen.
“We need more people at the table,” Matheson said.
John B. Larson, D-Conn., who was re-elected caucus chairman Wednesday, said the amendments would have to be vetted first by a panel of about 16 Democrats — the organization of study and review, which is chaired by Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts. That group is to meet Thursday morning, and it will make a recommendation to the caucus on whether to adopt the changes.
Larson said the moderates would get “two bites at the apple,” meaning they would first get a chance to the sell their proposals to the Capuano committee, and then to the full caucus. But he said full-caucus votes on the Matheson proposals could be delayed.
“[Matheson] will get his votes. I don’t know if he will get his votes tomorrow,” Larson said. “His votes impact a process. That process won’t go forward until he gets his votes.”
Larson said it was possible that Capuano’s panel would make other recommendations to the full caucus to restructure the leadership team to add more seats that could potentially be filled by centrists.
But the changes being sought by moderates to expand their influence were expected to be defeated. “It would hardly make sense, now that the team is elected, to take away their authority,” a senior Democratic aide said.
Shuler, meanwhile, made clear he was concerned about policy as well as process. He said he would continue to press for a more centrist agenda. “Most of America would ask that our caucus move in that direction,” he said. But he added that he had no intention of defecting to the GOP. “We are a big tent party,” he said.
Democrats allowed a spirited debate over the motion to delay the leadership elections until Dec. 8, but they ultimately voted, 129-68, to reject the postponement proposal by Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio.
With more than one-third of those voting backing a delay, the vote offered a measure of the post-election anger aimed at Pelosi and her leadership team from both wings of her party. Moderates complained that the party’s message was too liberal. Liberals argued that the caucus needed more time to regroup and formulate themes to energize the party’s base.
Allen Boyd of Florida, a Blue Dog defeated for re-election, said much of the dissent was aimed at Pelosi. “Nancy Pelosi is the face that defeated 60-plus members,” Boyd said. “I am very disappointed she decided to stay as minority leader.”
Brad Sherman of California said a number of members were speaking out in defense of Pelosi and her team. “People said Pelosi was responsible for the defeat. I don’t think that is the case,” said Jerrold Nadler of New York.
Pelosi, who has served as Speaker since 2007, surprised many in her caucus and beyond when she decided to seek the post of minority leader in the 112th Congress. Other Speakers in recent years have stepped down after their party lost control of the House.
Blue Dogs and other moderates, who suffered massive losses in the Nov. 2 election, were among those grumbling about her decision. But ultimately, Democrats decided they needed a proven fighter and fundraiser to help them survive in the minority.
Pelosi served four years as minority leader before taking the Speaker’s gavel. She has already proved her deftness at bridging divisions within her caucus, persuading current Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., to drop a contest for the No. 2 leadership spot in the minority. Instead, she created a new position — assistant leader, the No. 3 spot — to satisfy Clyburn. The caucus promptly voted for both.
Democrats also re-elected Larson as caucus chairman and Xavier Becerra of California as caucus vice chairman. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland was in line to be ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.
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