Skip to main content

House Democrats agonize over leadership choices

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Pelosi seeks support to remain House Democratic leader
  • Rep. Steny Hoyer and Rep. James Clyburn both want to become House minority whip
  • House Republicans announce the members of their transition team
  • Rep. Pete Sessions will seek another term as head of the NRCC

Washington (CNN) -- House Democrats engaged in a furious internal debate Monday about the future direction of their party -- a direction made more uncertain in the wake of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's unexpected decision to seek another term despite the party's massive losses in last week's midterm elections.

Democrats are still grappling with the consequences of a net loss of at least 60 seats to the House Republicans, who are now set to reclaim majority status a mere four years after giving it up.

Pelosi's defenders argue she's been an effective legislative leader who is well positioned to help Democrats reclaim their majority in 2012. Her detractors contend she has become a partisan lightning rod that will hamper the party's efforts to win back more moderate districts.

Pelosi herself remained sequestered behind closed doors on Capitol Hill Monday, talking to members from her office over the phone in an attempt to round up support, according to a source close to the speaker. In an effort to demonstrate support for her retaining the top Democratic spot, Pelosi's office released a summary of favorable press coverage including quotes from analysts and pundits.

Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, indicated his support for her, issuing a statement calling the veteran San Francisco Democrat "a tireless champion for working families."

There has been some grumbling among the diminished band of so-called moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats that Pelosi needs to go. But no Democrat has stepped forward to challenge Pelosi so far, and it appears unlikely that moderates can marshal enough votes to defeat her.

Before the midterm, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-North Carolina, pledged he would run against Pelosi if a "viable candidate" did not emerge. Shuler, however, has since refused to indicate what his plans are.

Angst among Democratic moderates over Pelosi's desire to retain her leadership comes on top of a heated contest over who will become the next minority whip. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn are both seeking the post, which will be the second highest position for House Democrats in the next Congress.

The more moderate Hoyer has served as Pelosi's top lieutenant in the current Democratic-controlled Congress, while the more liberal Clyburn has been the number-three Democrat. Their loss of the majority, however, has eliminated one of the Democrats' leadership slots.

Complicating matters for Hoyer: a disproportionate share of the Democrats who went down to defeat last week were Blue Dogs more likely to back him. The remaining caucus members are believed to be more uniformly liberal and perhaps therefore predisposed to support Clyburn.

In an effort to push back at the notion that Hoyer lacks support from the so-called "progressive" wing of the caucus, over the weekend sources close to Hoyer emphasized support from members such as New York Rep. Jerry Nadler and California Rep. Bob Filner.

Hoyer has more public endorsements than Clyburn to date, and a letter released Sunday night included the names of 30 House Democrats reflecting a cross section of the Democratic caucus. But Clyburn's camp has cautioned that the he continues to build support, and says many members prefer not to make their endorsements public.

Hoyer and Clyburn, like Pelosi, have been working the phones, talking to lawmakers to try to gather support in their competition for the number-two spot. Sources close to each have insisted to CNN that their candidate will prevail.

Hoyer's camp says he is having success convincing Democratic lawmakers that he is more of a uniting force, something that is critical in the new Democratic leadership.

A source close to Clyburn --- one of the top African-Americans in the House -- voiced similar confidence about his effort to be House minority whip, promising that "he will lock up the votes."

California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, sent a letter to other House Democrats Monday urging them to back Clyburn. Lee called him an "extremely effective consensus builder" who has "learned how to work with conservatives and moderates to get results."

Clyburn characterized himself the underdog in his contest with Hoyer during an appearance Monday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." But he also promised that, regardless of the outcome, the two would be able to work effectively together in the future.

"I've been here 18 years. Steny's been here 30 years. He has his friends. I have mine. And Steny and I are friends," Clyburn said. "We are not going to leave this (leadership race) angry at each other."

One Clyburn confidant nevertheless bemoaned the choice now facing House Democrats.

"Folks don't want this election to happen," the source said. "They think it could tear the caucus apart. ... It is like choosing your favorite child."

Some Democratic sources say they believe that in the end, both Hoyer and Clyburn will be part of the leadership, with one taking the number-three slot of Democratic caucus chairman.

"They're both going to be at the table, I'm absolutely convinced," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

Other sources close to both Hoyer and Clyburn have also indicated there have been discussions about working out a deal to avoid a divisive vote, which is slated to take place in two weeks when Congress returns for a lame-duck session.

Who would get the higher-ranking slot would likely depend on privately proving he has the most votes.

But one senior Democratic source warned that a deal maintaining leadership status for Clyburn and Hoyer could be a problem for rank-and-file party members looking for some sort of change in the leadership team.

"The perception that these things are being manipulated, happening behind closed doors, is something that needs to be taken seriously," the source said.

For their part, House Republicans avoided a potentially contentious leadership fight Monday when Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, announced his decision not to challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, for the position of majority whip -- the third highest ranking position in the House GOP hierarchy.

Sessions will instead seek another term as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is tasked with heading House GOP campaign efforts.

"I have fulfilled my initial mission statement: to retire Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Sessions said in a written statement. But "despite record victories as NRCC Chairman, my vision and work is not done. I strongly believe in selling the fight, and I will be asking my colleagues to support me as NRCC Chairman next Congress to strengthen our gains and advance an agenda for American prosperity."

GOP leader John Boehner, likely the next House speaker, immediately praised Sessions' decision.

"I am very grateful for Pete's tireless work as he has helped to guide House Republicans from the political wilderness to an historic victory for the American people," Boehner said.

McCarthy also played a key role in 2010 House GOP campaign efforts, playing a lead role in crafting the "Pledge to America," a 45-page document outlining Republican plans for the next Congress.

House Transition Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon, also announced 21 other members of the incoming Congress who will help oversee the GOP's switch from minority to majority status. Newly elected representatives from Alabama, Colorado, Illinois and South Carolina are among those joining the GOP's transition team.

CNN's Alan Silverleib, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh and Evan Glass contributed to this report