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House Democrats Unsettled About Leadership Next Year

Elections once considered dull now rocked by uncertainty

Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, right, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have served in leadership roles for more than a decade. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, right, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have served in leadership roles for more than a decade. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democratic leaders, who until recently anticipated continuing on in those roles next year, are being circumspect about their futures amid signs rank-and-file members, stunned by the election, are agitating for change.

Last week’s outcome marked the third straight election that Democrats failed to take back the majority in the House. And it stoked new questions about whether fresh blood was needed in the Democrats’ top ranks.

Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who has held leadership positions in Congress for the last decade, said the caucus would be making adjustments to improve its structure and messaging, but added that the question of how the caucus will operate going forward remains unanswered.

“I have no idea what the challenges will be. I have no idea what the results will be,” Clyburn said of the impending leadership elections. “I just feel very good about it.”

Clyburn was among a host of Democrats who met at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Wednesday to evaluate lessons learned after the party failed to pick up as many House seats as had been projected before the election.

Democrats have, so far, netted six seats — far less than the 10 to 20 projected to flip in the weeks leading up to the election. The party need to flip 30 seats to gain control of the House.

Shortly after the meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi officially announced that she would seek re-election, a day after she bowed to pressure from some members to delay leadership elections due to be held Thursday until after the Thanksgiving holiday. Pelosi was first elected the top Democrat in 2002. Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, the caucus’ No. 2, also announced his intention to run.

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Only Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio has expressed interest in the idea of running against Pelosi but his office said Wednesday he had not made any final decisions.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján led Wednesday’s meeting, which covered matters from how tying House Republicans to Donald Trump was favorable to some Democrats down ballot to how the actions of FBI Director James B. Comey stalled Democratic momentum in the run-up to the election.

The New Mexico Democrat was unclear about his own prospects.

“I’m willing to do anything that I need to do to help our family and our colleagues,” Luján said. “I’m eager to work with them in any capacity with or without a title.”

The chairman of the DCCC is appointed by Pelosi, but some members are proposing that it be made a position elected by the caucus. 

Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, the caucus vice chairman, has had his eye on becoming chairman this year but has yet to make an official announcement.

“I’m talking to my colleagues about that and I think the wisdom of the caucus is that they’ll demonstrate that,” Crowley said.

Connecticut Rep. John Larson said a caucus led by Crowley would take a different approach to leadership in terms of having a power structure that comes from the bottom up.

“That’s ultimately where the individual rank-and-file member has to go, not in just a cathartic emotional venting process immediately afterward but the continuum of how is the bottom-up within the caucus heard,” Larson said.

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Larson reiterated the notion that rank-and-file members feel frustrated by a lack of opportunities to rise within the House leadership structure, citing the age gap between Crowley, and the leadership top three. 

“When you have a guy who’s 55 and people that are all over 75, that’s a 20-year gap,” Larson said. “That’s also part of the dynamic that’s going on in our caucus is, ‘Where do you go?’”

Democrats successfully pressured leadership Tuesday to delay congressional elections until after Thanksgiving, citing a need to evaluate sweeping losses, but stopping short of advocating new leadership.

California Rep. Xavier Becerra, who is stepping down as caucus chairman due to term limits — something Democrats don’t impose on other leadership positions or ranking chairmanships — said the party will have to change how it works legislatively.

“You have to adjust because now you’re working from a position of complete minority status,” Becerra said. “You’re locked out of any governance.”

Becerra’s future in House leadership is unknown.

In the past, Pelosi has created new positions for outgoing Democratic leaders whom she considers allies such as Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who was named chairman of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in 2014.

The only contested race in the Democratic caucus this cycle is for the vice chairmanship of the caucus between Rep. Barbara Lee and Linda T. Sánchez, both of California. Before the election, that was a race to watch — until the election rocked the upper echelon of Democratic leadership.

Despite the possibility of a Ryan challenge, members predicted Pelosi will retain her role.

“It’s a center-left, more left, liberal caucus and Nancy has the built-in thing,” Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar said. “If you ask me, she’s going to win.”

Contact Rahman at or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.Contact McPherson at and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.

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