As Democrats brush themselves off after a brutal electoral beat down last Tuesday, the climate on Capitol Hill grows tense once again as both parties transition into leadership phase. Republicans have already accepted House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-CA) as Speaker for the 112th Congress and there are very quiet battles taking place for House Majority Whip, House Republican Conference Chair and other positions. Most observers consider the GOP will handle business fairly smoothly.
But, the more heated Hill leadership battles are about to take place on the Democratic side, where outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has decided to stay on as House Minority Leader to the chagrin of many within the Dem caucus who consider her one of the main reasons behind their devastating losses last week. That decision, catching some who expected her to step aside by surprise, has triggered a dramatic contest between her two closest lieutenants, current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC).
The new partisan dynamics on the Hill, placing Democrats in the minority once again for the first time since 2006, force limited leadership positions at play for those who had grown used to their new roles as majority kingmakers. Clyburn, the most senior African American in the House, is making a hardball play for the No. 2 minority leadership post, claiming that despite his current post – which expires during the upcoming lame duck session into the end of the year – he is presently the “underdog” in the race.
Clearly, the stakes are much higher than Clyburn attempting to prevent a squeeze-out by Hoyer, the longtime Maryland lawmaker. After Tuesday’s beating, Congressional Black Caucus Members lost four powerful House Committee Chairmanships due to the overwhelmingly Democratic composition of the Caucus. Even though the CBC will expand by two more Members (including Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Allen West (R-FL), who has expressed a willingness to join), many are concerned that one of the largest, oldest and most unified Caucus’ on Capitol Hill will lose serious influence against an emboldened Republican onslaught.
Most observers considered Hoyer’s chances at becoming Minority Whip fairly high until the entrance of Clyburn. But with the respected CBC Member and former South Carolina human rights commissioner entering the fray, the path to leadership just got harder for Hoyer. Clyburn should easily command the majority of votes from the 42-Member CBC. However, a more complex question remains regarding two votes from the CBC: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD). Both are part of the Maryland delegation that Hoyer is from, with Edwards’ a district neighbor. While loyalty to the Caucus is intense, both Members will face a difficult decision in terms of how this race will impact the Free State. And both Members come from majority-Black districts in a state with a powerful Black political presence where 30% of the electorate is African American.
Still, Clyburn, putting out feelers for votes over the weekend, is sure to get support from many White, Latino and other progressive colleagues, as well. Many on the Hill consider Clyburn one of the main reasons behind a disciplined, united Democratic Caucus during controversial, high-risk votes such as health care and financial regulatory reform. And Democrats on both the House and Senate side appreciate Clyburn’s lead role in mobilizing Black political machines and voters in key races. A lot of the seats Clyburn has helped mobilize are those belonging to moderates and Blue Dog Democrats, a feat which would not have been possible without the force and commitment of the Black vote. What’s more, many believe that the path back to the Democratic majority lies in the ability of the party to mobilize the minority vote–a skill at which Clyburn is uniquely primed and aptly prepared to deliver on for the party. Because he is well respected by progressives, and has campaigned for moderates and Blue Dog memnbers, he understands what it takes to win critical races and has a strong voice in support of Democratic ideals. Clyburn is certain to use his experience as a leveraging tool, pointing out that Black voters are the most reliable voting bloc for the Democratic party. Still, Hoyer is best known for his fundraising prowess which will be a large factor in this match-up.
Over the weekend on CBS’ “Face the Nation” this Sunday, Clyburn noted that his colleagues are very satisfied with the way that he has been conducting himself as Majority Whip. “When I talk to those people,” he said, “our constituents out there, they say to me that I was a very effective spokesperson for our party and for the policies we laid out.”
A larger problem for Hoyer is perception. With progressive or liberal Democrats dominating the Caucus – reflected in Pelosi’s decision to stay on despite last Tuesday’s losses – Hoyer is considered a moderate, leading some to believe that he will compromise legislative priorities dear to the left-wing of the Caucus.
Clyburn on the other hand has a commanding presence within the progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus, and his working relationship with Pelosi is much better than Hoyer’s, a Pelosi-rival. Another plus is the admiration Clyburn gets for maintaining strong political standing in a Southern and very conservative state as a Black elected official.
In the meantime, the race is heating up as the vote takes place in two weeks. However, the outcome could be determined as early as the end of this week as Democrats are hoping to avoid a nasty, public contest. Hoyer has snagged open endorsements from Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. Clyburn has endorsements from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, to Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, to Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York.