Pelosi Inches Closer to Unifying Caucus

Posted November 17, 2010 at 7:22pm

Just moments after nearly a quarter of her Caucus voted to fire her as their leader Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi vowed to make things right.

The soon-to-be ex-Speaker beat back a challenge from Rep. Heath Shuler to serve as Minority Leader in the next Congress, with Members voting for her, 150-43. And while Pelosi still wasn’t prepared to accept blame for her party’s loss of the House majority on Nov. 2, she used her acceptance speech to work toward party unity.

“I thank Congressman Shuler for the gentleman he is,” Pelosi told her Caucus after the vote, according to a senior aide. “I look forward to working with him and his supporters.”

Shuler said before the election that his candidacy was merely symbolic; he said he was running to send a message that it was time for a change after the Nov. 2 election that cost Democrats the majority.

Pelosi later told the press that she and her leadership team brought Democrats to victory in 2006 and would do so again.

But repairing the rifts in the Caucus won’t be easy. In addition to the 43 votes for Shuler, 68 returning Democrats effectively registered a vote of no confidence to Democratic leadership by asking them to delay Wednesday’s elections until December. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Marcy Kaptur, who led the effort, said Members needed time to digest the midterm outcome.

Pelosi has blamed the Democrats’ defeat on the 9.6 percent unemployment rate — not her leadership in particular. And she argued that a $75 million attack ad campaign has led to her low poll ratings.

“Let me put that in perspective: How would your ratings be if $75 million was spent against you?” she asked a reporter after the Caucus vote.

Pelosi said Democrats know she is an effective leader.

Aides said Pelosi, who has led the Caucus for eight years, has reached out to nearly every Democratic Member since Election Day, including the new and defeated, to try to bring them together. Republicans gained at least 61 seats in the midterms, and some Democrats fear many of those seats may be lost for good.

The losses have fueled Pelosi’s critics in questioning her leadership and suggesting that now is time for a shake-up. And at Wednesday’s vote, Shuler and other detractors pressed Pelosi to take a more inclusive approach to governing.

“At the end of the day, we have to come together as a party to win together,” Shuler said, according to a source in the Caucus room.

Shuler’s speech to his colleagues was not combative, sources said. He opened by recounting having his young daughter sitting in his lap in 2007 when Pelosi was elected Speaker and whispering in her ear, “There’s nothing in this world that you cannot do.”

But Shuler also talked about his days as an NFL quarterback, recalling the day his coach told him that it wasn’t about him, but it was time to go. The North Carolina Democrat said at a news conference afterward that he ran to “ensure that the moderates are heard and that we have a seat at the table” and that Pelosi has made a commitment to listen.

“There was a lot of unrest in the room for several hours,” Shuler said, noting the hours of debate on whether to even hold the elections this week. “It sends a message, but in a way that is constructive.”

“I think that there’s a lot of concern in the Caucus about direction and where we go from here, and 68 votes shows significant concern,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), who Pelosi has informally tapped as the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition liaison to leadership. “The Caucus will continue to do a great deal of soul-searching as it moves forward.”

Still, other Democrats were less forgiving. As Rep. Jim Matheson put it: “Same old, same old isn’t going to cut it, as far as I’m concerned. The voters spoke.”

The Utah lawmaker, another Blue Dog, is proposing a series of rules changes to limit Pelosi’s powers. On Wednesday, he agreed to put off consideration of them in exchange for a full Caucus vote, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

He wants to make elected posts of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Steering and Policy Committee and the Rules Committee chairmanships, as well as to establish two vice chairman positions on Steering and Policy to expand the Membership.

Pelosi has been called the most powerful Speaker in history and is virtually unmatched when it comes to counting votes and fundraising. And it is those very skills that many argued kept the critics from sidelining her Wednesday.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who nominated her for Minority Leader, argued: “How can we fold on her when she’s not folding on us?” according to a source.