Skip to content

Clyburn Steps Up His Role

Wilson Gives Whip a Voice

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wanted to move on to health care reform. So did President Barack Obama. But Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) wouldn’t let it go.

Clyburn, who has played a low-key role in House leadership next to Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), prevailed upon his Caucus to rebuke Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) this week with a rare and historic resolution of disapproval for his “You lie!— scream at Obama.

For Clyburn, it was the culmination of years of perceived slights and insensitivities on Wilson’s part — from his backing of flying the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina Capitol to holding a raucous town hall meeting during the August break in Clyburn’s district at his children’s high school.

This time Wilson had gone too far.

The night of Obama’s joint address to Congress last week, Clyburn was incensed and complained that his home-state colleague needed to apologize not just to the president, but to the House.

Under pressure from GOP leaders, Wilson had called White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel afterward to offer his mea culpa. But the next day, Clyburn approached Wilson three times to convince him that he owed his colleagues an apology, too.

[IMGCAP(1)]“This was a violation of House rules, not White House rules,— Clyburn said he told Wilson.

Republican leaders also approached Wilson as Hoyer delayed the final vote of the week, to no avail.

While Pelosi told reporters she wanted to move on and focus on health care, Clyburn, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in particular, argued Wilson should not be allowed to avoid any formal consequences if he failed to apologize on the House floor.

Clyburn prevailed, and Tuesday, while Hoyer presented the resolution under the rules, Clyburn took the lead in defending it.

It’s not a typical role for Clyburn, who has performed much of his leadership work behind the scenes and has been known to leave much of the old-fashioned arm-twisting of the Whip job to Pelosi, Hoyer and others.

In addition to his role counting votes, Clyburn has been the point man running interference between Democratic leaders and fellow members of the CBC — identifying points of contention early and helping broker compromises to try to defuse them.

Back in the spring of 2006, for example, then-Minority Leader Pelosi infuriated many CBC members with her drive to remove then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from the Ways and Means Committee after he was targeted by FBI raids in a bribery probe. Clyburn, then Democratic Caucus chairman, remained publicly neutral. But behind the scenes, he was engaging in shuttle diplomacy between leaders and CBC members, trying to keep those black lawmakers who were upset with the move up to date on the process while receiving earfuls from them on the arbitrariness of the decision, sources familiar with the events said. After Democrats gave Jefferson the boot, Clyburn pushed to clarify internal rules so there would be a clear standard for stripping committee assignments from Members in the future.

Earlier this year, Clyburn helped the CBC prevail on House Democratic leaders to count more than just fundraising in determining how much lawmakers are doing for the party. Members of the CBC have long complained that they have a tougher time than their colleagues paying party dues because it is more difficult to wrangle political donations in their disproportionately impoverished districts. Under a new system Clyburn hashed out, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now recognizes political travel, interviews with local press and other ways CBC members help out fellow Democrats on top of traditional fundraising.

Some members of the CBC balked at the suggestion that his political strength is centered in their group, but Clyburn — one of the most senior black lawmakers in House history — said it’s no surprise that he is the eyes and ears of the CBC in leadership, as well as the eyes and ears of leadership in the CBC.

“There is nobody else in leadership with the set of experiences I have,— said Clyburn, who helped organize South Carolina’s first sit-ins at the outset of the civil rights movement.

Clyburn acknowledges that he is a different kind of Whip from Pelosi or Hoyer, or from former Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Clyburn notes that he is in the majority in a diverse Democratic Caucus, unlike Pelosi and Hoyer, who served in the minority, and said he has tried to model his role on former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) instead.

“The Tom DeLay model will never work,— Clyburn said of “the Hammer.—

But Clyburn said sometimes too much is made of his “soft sell— approach as Whip, noting he can break an arm or two if needed.

“It all depends whose body the arm is attached to,— Clyburn said, chuckling.

“A lot of this has to do with style,— Clyburn added. “People respect substance, but people react to style.—

Clyburn also said the party has worked well with Pelosi, Hoyer and others having key roles in whipping Members as well. Pelosi is known for her ability to persuade liberal members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to take tough votes, while Hoyer — a fiscal moderate — plays the lead role in cajoling like-minded Blue Dogs.

“I have made it very clear to Steny and to Nancy that I respect their abilities in this body and as former Whips, and I need them to help make this work,— Clyburn said.

So far, the leadership team has gotten nearly all of what it wants through the House floor, with Democratic aides saying the final result is what matters at the end of the day. But others say the heavy lifting of his job is frequently left to Pelosi, Hoyer and others. “The Speaker at the end of the day still functions like the Whip. She’s the Speaker-slash-Whip,— one senior Democratic aide said. “But I do think the question needs to be asked, ‘Is Clyburn less aggressive because the Speaker is so in the weeds?’—

Aides said Clyburn has been more assertive behind closed doors this year — for example, insisting on personally getting each Member on the record in Whip meetings leading up to big votes instead of leaving those tallies to staff as follow-up work. In part, that new aggressiveness may be fueled by the ascendency of the first black man to the White House, whom Clyburn has regularly defended.

In the Wilson episode, Clyburn reluctantly seized the leading role.

Clyburn said that even as the Wilson resolution was coming to the floor this week, he held out hope that Wilson would “take 10 seconds— and go to the well of the House and say he was sorry.

Clyburn said he would have immediately withdrawn the resolution. As Republicans came one after another to the podium to decry the resolution as a partisan stunt, complain about the waste of time and decry the Democrats’ health care plans, Clyburn rebuffed numerous Democrats who wanted to speak and kept the focus on Wilson’s breach of decorum and his lack of an apology to the House, steering away from discussions of race or policy issues.

“They politicized it,— Clyburn said.

Asked to comment on Clyburn’s role in his rebuke, Wilson issued a statement highlighting their history together.

“I am honored to serve in a district adjacent to Jim Clyburn’s,— he said, pointing to his attendance at Clyburn’s swearing-in as Majority Whip and his support for Clyburn’s daughter, Mignon, for a seat on the state Public Service Commission. “I look forward to continuing our friendship and efforts to promote health insurance reform for the American people.—

But the day after the rebuke, Clyburn said the broader racial implications of the episode must be confronted. “For anybody to say that we ought not to pay attention to the 5 or 10 percent out there motivated by race — these things fester, they become sores, they run, and they infect everything that they touch,— Clyburn said. “These kinds of things must be faced up to.—

Clyburn took pride in the vote, which included seven Republicans. Twelve Democrats broke ranks to oppose it.

In its aftermath, Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.), one of the Republicans to vote to rebuke Wilson, shared an e-mail with Clyburn from a constituent.

“You don’t represent my South Carolina,— the missive read.

Inglis, tears welling up, told Clyburn he replied, “You’re right, I don’t.—

Recent Stories

Kim launches primary challenge after Menendez refuses to quit

Four spending bills readied for House floor amid stopgap uncertainty

Menendez rejects New Jersey Democrats’ calls to resign after indictment

Photos of the week ending September 22, 2023

Dressing down — Congressional Hits and Misses

Menendez indictment comes with Democrats playing 2024 defense