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Post-Pelosi Line Is Forming to Lead Democrats

A Cadre of Players Are Positioned to Move Up

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is intent to regain her Speakership, but as she sets her sights on that goal, several more junior Democratic Members are positioning themselves to succeed her.

A cadre of rising stars, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Steve Israel (N.Y.), are part of an emerging generation of lawmakers with hopes of moving up the leadership roster. Taking on roles that have increased their visibility, the Members aren’t standing idle as Pelosi maintains her grip on the Democratic Caucus.

So far, Pelosi has not publicly intimated that she has plans to step down anytime soon. And Democratic aides and lobbyists said her chances of remaining leader of the House Democrats have improved along with the party’s election prospects as Republicans have suffered politically on their proposal to overhaul Medicare.

“Democrats are going on the offense, holding Republicans accountable for ending Medicare as we know it and for supporting Big Oil instead of dealing with jobs,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. “We fully expect to continue delivering this message in districts all across the country as we move toward regaining the majority.”

That hasn’t stopped speculation on who will replace the 71-year-old Congresswoman.

“Other than a parlor game … nobody knows,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “It’s all just guesses.”

Another topic of discussion is the aging ranks of Pelosi’s leadership team. The average age of the top four House Democrats is 68. Although Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) and Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) may be interested in assuming the top Democratic slot, several aides and K Streeters believe that when Pelosi steps down there will be a wholesale change in the face of the Caucus leadership.

Wasserman Schultz, the 44-year-old Democratic National Committee chairwoman, tops the list of up-and-comers. While the Florida Democrat’s star dimmed last year when she was passed over to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic aides and lobbyists said her recent nomination to the Democratic National Committee gives her an even better platform to become the next leader of House Democrats.

President Barack Obama picked her to lead the party in a general election year, but Wasserman Schultz downplays what that might mean for her future.

“There’s always a lot of talk about my rise, rising star. I think that’s all baloney,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview earlier this month. “The thing that I always want to be known by is hard worker. The best praise that anybody could heap on me is that I’m a hard worker, and if I’m rewarded for that hard work, it’s just going to make me more effective for my constituents.”

Van Hollen is also considered a top contender. The Maryland Democrat’s ambition has long been recognized. He was chosen to serve as the DCCC’s recruitment committee chairman and co-chaired the Red to Blue program with Wasserman Schultz for the 2006 cycle, when Democrats took the majority under then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who some thought would be Pelosi’s heir apparent.

More recently, Van Hollen has asserted himself in the Caucus, persuading his colleagues to support him as the party leader on the Budget Committee even though the five-term lawmaker didn’t serve on the panel during the 111th Congress.

“I thought the Budget Committee would be in the middle of a national discussion and debate about our priorities,” Van Hollen said in an interview, declining to discuss his leadership ambitions. “These are issues that are important to the American people, and these are issues where there’s a clear difference between the Democratic approach and the Republican approach. I thought it was important to be part of that discussion.”

Pelosi has asked him to serve as the Caucus’ negotiator on several dicey political issues, including an extension of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts last year. Also at Pelosi’s behest, the Congressman is serving on the deficit reduction committee led by Vice President Joseph Biden.

Van Hollen has been sharpening his legislative chops after two rounds of leading the DCCC, a thankless role during the 2010 election cycle that Members lauded him for despite the party suffering a net loss of 63 seats and the majority.

One Democratic strategist said Van Hollen’s experience in the middle of difficult issues is a major selling point for him going into any leadership race.

“Pelosi is constantly putting him in these important, high-profile debates,” the strategist said. “He has been her go-to guy on complicated and tough issues.”

New York Democrats Israel and Rep. Joe Crowley are also considered potential leadership candidates. Pelosi has shown favoritism toward Israel, selecting him to lead the DCCC for the 2012 cycle. A largely unknown commodity, the six-term lawmaker will need to prove himself as a viable leader and consensus builder to have a shot at one of the higher slots later on, according to K Streeters.

Israel already stumbled in his current role, upsetting members of the Congressional Black Caucus in March when he reportedly said the caucus would be helpful to Democrats’ 2012 prospects but not essential. Since then, Israel has made a point of trying to assuage any old wounds with the CBC and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Asked about his leadership ambitions, Israel said in a statement, “I’m solely focused on my district, holding Republicans accountable, and what Democrats need to do to win the House in 2012.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to rise on the leadership track, Crowley, a titan in New York politics, has not run for a contested position since 2006, when he lost a bid for the Caucus vice chairmanship against Larson. Crowley has continued to grow his presence, however, as leader of the New Democrat Coalition. But his track record of losing contested leadership elections suggests his future may not be as bright as that of Van Hollen or Wasserman Schultz. Still, Crowley, a chief deputy whip, wields influence in the Caucus as a prolific fundraiser and frequent spokesman on many policy issues.

Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra is also among the lawmakers discussed as moving up the leadership ranks. However, the California Democrat, who is a Pelosi ally, has yet to break through on any specific issues as a party spokesman.

The lone dark horse among the top candidates is Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.). While most aides and K Streeters don’t give the conservative Democrat much chance of leading the Caucus, he earned credibility as a potential leader when he challenged Pelosi for the top position in January. Shuler received 11 votes for Speaker in a token challenge to Pelosi.

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