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Pelosi’s Leadership Faces the Test

Speaker Nancy Pelosi enters today’s leadership elections at one of the weakest points of her career, forced to stare down a series of challenges to her stewardship of the Caucus and the structure she created. 

House Democrats are scheduled to gather at 10 a.m. to elect their leaders for the next Congress, one day after they spent hours locked away in an emotional, soul-searching Caucus meeting. The Member session was the first since Democrats lost the majority by a landslide on Nov. 2.

Pelosi is all but certain to win her colleagues’ approval today to serve as Minority Leader, but only after she fends off a token challenge by Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. She is also likely to prevail against attempts to undercut her influence: Two other moderates plan to push a series of rules changes limiting her power, and a pair of liberals will push to delay the Caucus elections altogether until December. 

But Pelosi’s leadership remains fragile; she has been forced to defend herself to a Caucus she has led for eight years. 

Tuesday’s marathon Caucus meeting — which featured both sadness and blame for the election outcome — started with speeches from Pelosi and other leaders appealing to move forward together. The outgoing Speaker told her rank and file that she came to them Tuesday with “a heavy heart,” said one source who was in the room, but did not — according to several sources — directly address today’s leadership elections or the criticism of her that has emerged. 

Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), a defeated moderate, trained fire directly at the top: “If we thought we could win the majority back by having the same faces in the leadership posts, we’re making a big mistake. 

“I don’t know how you recruit in these districts” if Pelosi stays Minority Leader, Boyd said. A few other defeated Democrats used Tuesday’s meeting to say they would likely not run to reclaim their seats if Pelosi remains in charge.

Not every Member was so pointed, however. Some Democrats defended Pelosi, while others used the Caucus to say goodbye. Rep. Robert Andrews, a strong Pelosi backer, said Tuesday’s discussions were “frank” and described defeated Members’ stories “really inspiring.”

“They understand when you have principles. You don’t always win, but you have principles,” the New Jersey lawmaker said. 

But Shuler said there are Members such as himself who believe Pelosi’s time has come.

Shuler said he doesn’t expect to win today and was not making calls to seek support. Rather, he explained that his bid is about “standing up for what you truly believe in.” The former NFL quarterback said he told Pelosi on Nov. 4 in a 35- to 40-minute phone conversation that she should not run again because it would hurt efforts to recruit candidates and win back moderate districts.

None of the other Democratic leadership races to be voted on today is expected to be contested. In fact, Pelosi made sure of that by creating a new No. 3 Assistant Leader post to allow a spot for Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) in the minority lineup. In so doing, Pelosi averted a competitive race between the South Carolina lawmaker and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) for the Minority Whip post next year. The portfolio of Clyburn’s new position — which the Caucus must vote to create — was still being hashed out late Tuesday.

Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.) said he and fellow Blue Dog Rep. Larry Kissell (N.C.) would offer a slate of three or four changes to Caucus rules, including a proposal to make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairmanship an elected position with an open nominating process.

Boren said it is important for Democratic leaders to have a more “centrist message.”

“One thing that the electorate told us is that we don’t want extremists of either party,” Boren said. “We want people who are going to work together, who are going to find bipartisan, common-sense solutions.”

Members are also considering a vote to enforce term limits against two top Pelosi allies, Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who have served for eight years as co-chairmen of the Steering and Policy Committee.

Reps. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) and Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) said they would try to offer a resolution as the beginning of the leadership meeting to delay the elections until December; they also said they would ask for a secret ballot.

DeFazio said he and Kaptur had garnered 19 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon on a letter asking leaders to push back the leadership elections until Democrats have had time to digest the election results.

Several Democrats acknowledged that some of the remarks from defeated lawmakers Tuesday were directly critical of Pelosi’s leadership. And some acknowledged that they made the case for injecting new blood into the leadership ranks. Pelosi and her allies — she has a strong majority supporting her — have argued that the economy and joblessness rate led to the Democratic losses earlier this month.

But Rep. Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), who was trounced in his bid to replace Sen. Evan Bayh (D), said Pelosi’s unpopularity was a factor in his race, judging by the advertising against him.

“They sure ought to consider that,” Ellsworth said. “When a team is doing badly, you look at replacing the coaches.”

The Caucus by acclamation Tuesday adopted a resolution offered by Rep. David Wu (Ore.) that allowed defeated Members to speak for five minutes or more. Wu said Democrats subsequently adopted a separate resolution offered by Kaptur to allow speaking time for all interested Democrats, with staff kicked out of the room. 

“The views are different — about who should go, who should stay, what went wrong, what went right,” Wu said, adding that it was important to have a “mature, reflective” discussion before Democrats decide on new leaders.

“Some are for change, some say stay the course and some just are very thankful,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) said.

Pelosi has tried to shore up her support with some in her ranks, including the Congressional Black Caucus. The Speaker was set to meet with them Tuesday night over their insistence that Clyburn have a significant and defined portfolio in the newly announced Assistant Leader position.

“If Mr. Clyburn is satisfied, I think the Black Caucus will be satisfied,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) said.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report. 

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