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House Democrats’ New Leadership Team Will Be Mostly Same People

Five to seven current leaders expected to be elected again Wednesday, some in new roles

When House Democrats select their new leaders this week, the faces at the top of the ticket will likely be unchanged from the last 12 years: From left, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
When House Democrats select their new leaders this week, the faces at the top of the ticket will likely be unchanged from the last 12 years: From left, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

All the talk of a new generation of House Democratic leaders looks like it won’t materialize into any significant changes, as five to seven members of the current leadership team are likely to be elected to the new one. 

The Democratic Caucus will meet Wednesday — and possibly into Thursday — to nominate a speaker candidate for the Jan. 3 floor vote and to elect its other leaders for the 116th Congress. 

The races for the top four posts are uncontested, making it all but guaranteed that current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will be nominated for speaker, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland will be elected majority leader, Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina will be elected majority whip and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico will be elected assistant leader.

Clyburn initially attracted a challenge from Colorado’s Diana DeGette, but she dropped out, leaving him unopposed. 

Watch: Pelosi Talks Midterm ‘Wave,’ Says She Has Votes for Speakership

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Late challenges?

The only potential wrinkle to those races going as expected is a last-minute effort by leaders of the anti-Pelosi contingent to also target her two deputies.  

“Leader Pelosi wants to boil this down to a personal argument, but this is so much bigger than her,”  Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton said in a statement. “It’s about the entire, stagnant, 3-person leadership team and having a serious conversation about promoting leaders who reflect the future of our caucus.” 

The idea of a member launching a last-minute challenge against Hoyer or Clyburn — and furthermore Pelosi encouraging such a move after endorsing her Nos. 2 and 3 last week — seems unlikely. 

Hoyer released a letter two weeks ago with 155 members (two-thirds of the incoming Democratic Caucus) saying they support him for majority leader, effectively proving that if a challenger were to emerge, he or she would not prevail.  

In addition to the top four posts, three other roles may be filled by a current member of the leadership team. 

The members who have co-chaired the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee for the past two years — Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries — are all running for different leadership positions. 

Cicilline is running uncontested for a newly proposed DPCC chair position that would rank higher than the three co-chairs. Pelosi suggested last week that the caucus create the role to expand its messaging operations, which prompted Cicilline to drop out of the assistant leader race and declare his candidacy for DPCC chair

Familiar faces

With the cards being shuffled to provide for the aforementioned uncontested races, five members of the current leadership team are poised to return to the head table next Congress. 

The other two who may also stick around are Jeffries and Bustos, who are respectively running in contested races for the Nos. 5 and 7 positions, Democratic Caucus chair and DCCC chair.

The first leadership contest the caucus will vote on Wednesday is the caucus chair race between Jeffries and California Rep. Barbara Lee. The remaining leadership races are voted in order of seniority.

The Jeffries-Lee contest is expected to be tight. Both are in the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members appear to be divided over whom to support. 

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks called it a “tough race” but said he’s supporting Jeffries, his fellow New Yorker, citing his ability to bring people together. 

“I see him as the kind of individual that will be able to push this caucus forward, where everybody would have a voice whether you are a Blue Dog or a progressive or [in the] Hispanic Caucus, CBC or New Dem [Coalition],” he said.

Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson said he is backing Lee because she’s “paid her dues.” 

“She has done yeoman’s work — should I say, yeowoman’s work? — in our caucus and in our conference for years,” he said, referring to both the CBC and the broader Democratic Caucus. “And I believe this is her time.”

A handful of incoming freshmen who’ve announced their leadership picks in recent days also appear divided on the caucus chair race. Reps.-elect Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts are supporting Lee, while Kansas Rep.-elect Sharice Davids is backing Jeffries. 

Underwood and Davids both said they plan to support Bustos for DCCC chair, while Pressley did not specify her pick for that race. 

Bustos is in a four-way contest with Washington Reps. Suzan DelBene and Denny Heck and New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney — the latter three would be new to elected leadership if they won. 

The highest-ranking position that is guaranteed to be filled by a member who’s not previously served in elected leadership is the No. 6 position of caucus vice chair. Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark and California Rep. Pete Aguilar are competing in what could be a close race. 

There will also be new leadership at the DPCC, as none of the six candidates for the three co-chair slots have served in elected leadership before. The hopefuls are Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Adriano Espaillat of New York, John Garamendi and Ted Lieu of California and Rep.-elect Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.

The contest between Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Alabama’s Terri Sewell for the caucus representative position reserved for a member who’s served five terms or less will also ensure a new face at the leadership table. 

Twist in the rules

The only way the caucus vice chair, DPCC co-chair and caucus representative positions don’t get filled by a member who would be new to leadership is if Jeffries or Bustos were to lose their races and then declare for one of those positions and win. 

Democratic Caucus rules allow candidates to enter leadership races up until the actual vote, and since the elections occur in order of seniority (with the exception of caucus chair being the first vote), that means any of the members who lose a top spot could technically run for a lower one. It’s unclear, however, if anyone would pursue such a move.

In all, there will likely be at least five new members of the leadership team in lower-level positions. That would match the number of members who were first elected to leadership in 2016 in those same lower-level posts, some of whom are seeking to advance upward in leadership now.

While that dynamic doesn’t provide much of an immediate change at the top, as many had called for, the lower-level leaders could be the ones to bring about that change, someday. 

“When you look at the caucus chair, the vice chair and the DCCC [chair] and things like that, that’s sort of like that second tier of leadership, where we really should be looking at who do we envision as our speaker and leader and whip two years from now, four years from now, six years from now,” Maryland Rep. Anthony G. Brown said.

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