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Clyburn backed by acclamation as Democrats fill out leadership team

Cicilline drops challenge launched a day ago for assistant leader

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., left, Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conduct a news conference during the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on March 11.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., left, Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conduct a news conference during the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on March 11. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 2:39 p.m. | House Democrats continued on Thursday to set their leadership team for the next Congress, approving outgoing House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn as assistant Democratic leader and picking four members to run the caucus’s messaging arm, among other posts. 

The caucus elected a new top trio of leaders on Wednesday: New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as minority leader, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark as minority whip and California Rep. Pete Aguilar as caucus chair. They were all unchallenged. California Rep. Ted Lieu won a four-way race for caucus vice chair. 

Clyburn, of South Carolina, has been the third-ranking Democrat since 2007 and was elected assistant leader by acclamation after his last-minute challenger, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, dropped out of the race at the start of the second day of closed-door elections. 

Cicilline had launched his bid for assistant leader just 24 hours earlier, saying he felt a “sense of duty” to run after the mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs so that community is represented in Democratic leadership. Cicilline, who is openly gay, gave what a source in the room said was a moving speech to the caucus about the importance of LGBTQ representation before he withdrew from the race.

Clyburn gave up his current No. 3 ranking leadership spot for Aguilar, whom he has mentored. After Aguilar lost his first race for caucus vice chair in 2018 before winning the post in 2020, Clyburn told him to stay engaged and put him on his whip team. 

“He’s been a tremendous asset to me and in this Congress I plan to do the same for him,” Clyburn told the caucus Thursday, according to a source in the room. 

As a result of Clyburn letting Aguilar step into the No. 3 role, there will be some reordering of leadership positions. Caucus chair is being moved up to the No. 3 spot and assistant leader will be moved down to No. 4 or 5. Democrats have yet to make a final call on the order between Clyburn’s post and caucus vice chair.

“Clyburn has said that he’s taking himself out of the line of leadership succession and named the leader, the whip and the caucus chair as in that line of leadership succession. That’s the only thing that has been decided based on Mr. Clyburn’s own evaluation of the situation. Everything else is a continuing effort to be worked through as the caucus organizes,” Jeffries told reporters Wednesday evening about the rankings. 

Messaging chairs 

Democrats on Thursday also elected four members to lead their messaging for the next two years on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. 

The structure of the DPCC has changed several times since it first became an elected leadership position in 2016 with three co-chairs instead of one appointed chair. In 2018, Democrats added a chair position to oversee the co-chairs, but they got rid of it in 2020 and changed the number of co-chairs to four. On Wednesday the caucus voted to restore the chair position and go back to three co-chairs.

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse was elected by acclamation to the so-called chair of chairs position. He was running unopposed for that newly reinstated post, after dropping his earlier bid for caucus chair to let Aguilar run unopposed. 

“While we know the next Congress will bring new challenges, I remain more hopeful than ever in House Democrats’ ability to build a more hopeful future for our country, and I’m excited about the opportunity to communicate our work towards that end — and why it matters — to the American people,” Neguse said. 

Seven Democrats ran for the three co-chair spots. Each member was able to vote for three candidates, with the three who got the highest totals prevailing. 

The three winners were: Veronica Escobar of Texas with 138 votes, Lauren Underwood of Illinois with 135 and Dean Phillips of Minnesota with 81.

The four who lost were: Adriano Espaillat of New York with 76 votes, Nikema Williams of Georgia with 75, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania with 60 and Susan Wild of Pennsylvania with 53.

Underwood winning one of the slots is significant because she is the first Black woman elected to House Democratic leadership since Shirley Chisholm in 1977.

Other decisions 

California Rep. Sara Jacobs won caucus leadership representative, defeating Texas Rep. Lizzie Fletcher. The position is reserved for a member who has served five or fewer terms, and only members who fit that description could vote. Jacobs, 33, is finishing her first term. 

Jacobs is the third Californian to be elected to the new leadership team, after Aguilar and Lieu. That makes up for the delegation losing Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the top spot. 

Texas Rep-elect. Jasmine Crockett was elected freshman leadership representative and California member-elect Robert Garcia was chosen president of the freshman class, a position that is not part of leadership.

Two Californians, Tony Cárdenas and Ami Bera, have also declared bids to be the next chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

But the caucus on Wednesday voted to return the DCCC chair to a position nominated by the Democratic leader. Jeffries said he’s not decided who he will nominated or when he’ll make his pick. 

“I haven’t made any decisions in terms of timing at this point, but we certainly want to come to a conclusion sooner rather than later so the work can begin,” he said. 

If Jeffries doesn’t pick Cárdenas or Bera, they could still run against his nominee if they have five members to nominate them in caucus deliberations. 

On Tuesday, battleground Democrats — defined as caucus members who were on the DCCC’s Frontline and Red to Blue candidate lists at the end of the cycle — will select a leadership representative. 

The battleground leadership representative is a new position the caucus voted to add on Wednesday. Reps. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Abigail Spanberger are running. Nevada Rep. Susie Lee, who offered the amendment to add the post, and seven other battleground Democrats signed onto a letter Thursday endorsing Spanberger. 

In addition to the DCCC chair, Jeffries gets to pick leaders of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which decides committee assignments for members, among other things. Those selections will fill the rest of the positions on the leadership team, in addition to the posts the caucus elected Wednesday and Thursday. 

Democrats were expected to consider multiple caucus rule change proposals during their meeting Thursday but the only one offered was an amendment from Hawaii Rep. Ed Case to change the structure of the Steering and Policy Committee to remove some of the leaders’ picks and automatic slots for committee chairs. His proposal was tabled after multiple members spoke out against it. 

No other rules changes were offered Thursday but Democrats with ideas can still offer their proposals during the regular weekly caucus meetings. 

Illinois Rep. Bill Foster is planning to offer his controversial amendment that would institute a six-year term limit for committee leaders on Tuesday, his office said. 

This report was corrected to reflect Rep.-elect Robert Garcia’s role in the Democratic caucus.

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