A power struggle is brewing in the new House Democratic minority.
Nancy Pelosi wants to keep many of the responsibilities she held for the past four years as Speaker, while Steny Hoyer is grasping for the clout he once held as Majority Leader. Problem is: Pelosi is now the Minority Leader and Hoyer is Whip, and there’s far less authority to go around.
Most recently the two have been tangling over who should lead the Caucus’ floor strategy on motions to recommit, the minority’s most powerful legislative tool to block or delay legislation. Hoyer floated the idea of creating an intra-Caucus task force to help Members make better use of the maneuver. But Democratic aides insist that Pelosi will still be in charge.
The Californian has recently reclaimed the job of leading ranking member and communications meetings, a role Hoyer played in the past two Congresses. Hoyer’s allies, however, say that the Maryland Democrat will not just count votes in the 112th Congress, and he is planning to oversee Caucus floor operations just as he did while Majority Leader.
When Republicans were in the minority, the office of then-Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) handled floor tactics.
The question of who in leadership should write the motions to recommit is one of the first issues to divide Democrats in the minority. Liberals, Pelosi’s base of support, insist she is the right leader for the job, while fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, top Hoyer backers, say he is the better fit.
“I feel that the motion to recommit is going to be very important,” said Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler, who challenged Pelosi’s leadership twice in recent months. “And it has to be motions to recommit that are much more appealing to moderates than it is to other areas of our Caucus.”
The North Carolina Democrat received 11 votes during Wednesday’s floor vote for the Speakership against Pelosi. Overall, 19 Democrats defected against Pelosi in the public and largely ceremonial vote for the House gavel. Rep. John Boehner won the job with 241 votes to Pelosi’s 173.
Pelosi has been working to consolidate her power and build Caucus support since the Nov. 2 elections that cost Democrats the majority. She has held a series of meetings with soon-to-be ranking members on committees and their staff directors, and last week her chief of staff, John Lawrence, ran the regular staff directors meeting, which Hoyer’s office used to conduct in the 111th Congress, according to Democratic aides.
“That is clearly something the leader’s office is trying to regain absolute control over,” one senior Democratic aide said. Communications aides are also now being included in the meetings to coordinate policy and messaging.
The aide said it is not surprising Pelosi is taking the lead as Democrats settle back into the minority. Hoyer and Pelosi have new jobs with different responsibilities, the aide said.
“When you are the Whip, your job is to count votes. All of these other things fall under the responsibility of the leader’s office.”
Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman said it makes sense for Pelosi to take back control of the ranking-member meetings.
“Last Congress, Steny Hoyer as the Majority Leader met with the Democratic chairs of the committees and we were discussing a legislative schedule, and where different items of legislation were at that particular time, and how he anticipated the calendar, which the Majority Leader is required to keep for the House,” the California Democrat said. “Now we have a different role and our leader is Nancy Pelosi, not Steny Hoyer. She’s the Minority Leader.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Pelosi’s recent posture is “absolutely” good for House Democrats.
“It’s about tightening us up,” the Arizona Democrat said. “It’s about having the same message. It’s about minimizing our differences. … I think it’s organizationally very good.”
A senior Democratic aide with ties to moderates said Pelosi had already started to flex her muscle behind closed doors and predicted she would continue.
“She’s used to being in change, and she’s going to want to be in charge,” the aide said. “Whatever role she wants for herself, she’s going to carve out and seize.”
Pelosi has always been defined by her ability to maximize influence. She and Hoyer have been known to butt heads: In 2001, Pelosi bested Hoyer in a bitter race for Minority Whip. Tensions between the two have flared, but aides insist that they are working together now and power is being divided up amicably.
Rep. Henry Cuellar said that Pelosi has “always been hands on” and that he had not seen a major shift in her approach.
“I think she’s still doing the same thing she was doing last time. … She can go from the big picture to the details. She does that in a very good way,” said the Texas Democrat, whom Pelosi tapped to be a vice chairman of he Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
Cuellar said Pelosi and Hoyer “complement each other very well” on the leadership team, noting that Hoyer is uniquely positioned to reach across the aisle. Cuellar said he expected Hoyer to do more than just whip votes.
“Instead of just counting, he’ll still look at the numbers. But I think he’s looking also … at the interactions with different groups and of course with the Republican side to see if there’s any way that we can reach compromises,” he said.
Lawmakers said Hoyer has spent recent weeks reaching out to Caucus leaders and has plans to regularly meet with the heads of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, New Democrat Coalition, Progressive Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Rep. Jim Matheson, another Blue Dog leader, said Hoyer is doing the same type of outreach he did in the majority.
“He meets with a lot of different groups within the Democratic Caucus. … That’s his mode of operation,” the Utah Democrat said. “He likes to sit down and make sure he’s touching a lot of different components of our Caucus.”
A senior House Democratic aide said Hoyer will continue to manage Democratic floor efforts “in conjunction with the leader’s office.” This aide also said it’s not unusual for Pelosi to step in and manage meetings with ranking members and staff directors.
“It has always been the role of the Minority Leader to handle the rankers and the staff directors meeting,” the aide said.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said Democratic leaders are on the same page — focused on articulating a strong message on creating jobs, strengthening the middle class and reducing the deficit.
“That is a unified Democratic message, and together we will move forward and make clear where we stand on the issues,” Elshami said. “We will stand firm on the issues that we believe are under attack.”