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Democrats Struggle to Unify

House Democrats haven’t been able to stop campaigning.

Rather than spending the days after Tuesday’s midterms regrouping, Members have been stuck fighting over who among them should lead in the minority. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Friday she would stand as Minority Leader, angering moderates who hoped she would step aside and forcing leaders underneath her to mount bids for the remaining leadership positions.

Top among the contests is for that of Minority Whip: Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) both want it, and they spent the weekend poring over Member call lists to try to shore up enough support to force the other from the race.

But until the situation is resolved, Democrats said they can’t turn the page on the election, in which Republicans picked up more than 60 seats, nor can they focus on immediate priorities like plotting a strategy for the Nov. 15 lame-duck session or for the next Congress.

The risks of a nasty leadership fight are high; some Democrats fear that if Clyburn is pushed out of leadership altogether, there will be a backlash from one of the Caucus’ most loyal voting blocs: the Congressional Black Caucus. Other Democrats worry that if Hoyer is squeezed out, the party’s outreach to moderates and ability to recruit candidates to run in swing districts will be crippled. And a Clyburn-Hoyer race highlights Pelosi’s challenge winning back the confidence of the party’s remaining centrists, some of whom said publicly last week that they won’t vote to keep her as Democratic leader in the 112th Congress.

“This is the last thing we need now,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “Pelosi created this internal strife when she decided to surprise everyone and run for leader. She can demonstrate leadership and help bring this to a quick conclusion. She should tell Hoyer and Clyburn to both go down a notch. And give a gold watch to [Conference Chairman John] Larson. And get it done in the next 24 hours.”

Clyburn signaled Sunday that a deal would get worked out so that none of the current leaders is left behind.

“We’ll get all this worked out in the coming days, and I suspect that it will be resolved in such a way that our Caucus will be very satisfied with the leadership team going forward,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

There is some speculation that Pelosi would solve the intraparty fight by creating a new leadership post, perhaps an appointed one like the “Assistant to the Speaker” slot now held by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, to make room for everyone in the leadership lineup; there is one fewer slot in the minority. Another scenario being discussed includes Pelosi giving Clyburn a top seat on the Appropriations Committee, where he previously served.

Pelosi may have to do some work to shore up her standing in the Caucus as well, however. On Saturday night, her office released a letter sent to Members outlining her contributions as Speaker and saying that she had “been very gratified by the extensive and enthusiastic support” she had received so far for her Minority Leader bid.

No one has announced a challenge to Pelosi, although Rep. Heath Shuler, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, threatened to do so if she ran and no “viable alternative” emerged. The North Carolina Democrat has been quiet since Pelosi announced her intentions.

Meanwhile, the Clyburn and Hoyer race moved ahead. As of Sunday evening, Hoyer claimed at least 36 public supporters for the whip job; Clyburn claimed eight backers. Both men insisted they were staying in the race, although Hoyer and his allies suggested he had the edge to win. “We’re going to win,” one source close to Hoyer said. “We’re a handful of votes away,” another said.

Leadership races are familiar for Hoyer. Pelosi defeated him in a hard-fought bid for Minority Whip in 2001, and Hoyer was forced into another contest in 2006 when the late Rep. John Murtha, fueled by Pelosi, took him on for Majority Leader. Hoyer handily won that race.

Hoyer and Pelosi have had a strained relationship since their face-off nearly a decade ago, and some Democrats initially suspected that Pelosi, in taking several days to announce her intention to run for Minority Leader, was trying to get him out of leadership once and for all, a suggestion her allies adamantly deny.

That narrative was boosted by a source close to Larson who said late last week that Pelosi gave him the green light to line up votes for Caucus chairman several days before she said what she would do. With Pelosi at the top and Larson encouraged to pursue the No. 3 slot, only one job, Minority Whip, remained for Hoyer and Clyburn.

So far, Pelosi has stayed out of the Clyburn-Hoyer race, according to sources close to all three, although she did speak by phone with Clyburn on Saturday and spoke privately with Hoyer for two hours Wednesday. A few of her close allies, including Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have endorsed Hoyer.

Hoyer’s allies argue that despite losing dozens of his longtime supporters in the midterms — his base is the Caucus’ moderates — he still has a broad base of support throughout the party, and they pointed to his early support from a handful of prominent liberals as proof that his backing is not limited to Blue Dogs. Many Hoyer supporters fear that without the balance he brings to the leadership team, the party’s hopes of retaking the majority will be lost in the near term.

Clyburn argued on “Face the Nation” that it was a mistake to pigeonhole him as a liberal. He said he had spent more time campaigning for Blue Dogs than for liberal Members this cycle, and he has a long record of reaching out to all factions of the party. Later Sunday, the South Carolina Democrat wrote his colleagues urging them to review his comments earlier in the day in which he said he “succinctly makes the case” for why he should stay on as whip.

Outside the Clyburn-Hoyer race, other lower-profile contests may also be burgeoning in the Democratic ranks. Larson may not be a lock for Caucus chairman, nor is Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) a shoe-in for vice chairman. Van Hollen or another Member may want to run for one of those positions.

One Democratic lobbyist with ties to Blue Dogs predicted last week that Pelosi’s decision to stay on as Minority Leader would touch off “very ugly, very divisive fights within the Caucus.”

“It’s going to filter down into everything.”

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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