As if it wasn’t bad enough for Democrats, still licking their wounds from last year’s elections, the party’s House caucus leadership still finds itself in a state of obnoxious disarray and factionalism. The signs of bitter internal fights are still apparent, from anxious progressives clearly dissatisfied with the current political playing field and bitter moderate Blue Dogs blindly grabbing through the darkness of a Capitol Hill abyss.
Months of circular firing squads and intra-party finger pointing all came to a head this week as an unprecedented display of mutiny occurred during the roll call votes on the House floor for Speaker and Minority earlier this week. It was the first time since 1997 anything comparable had ever happened in Congress: nearly 10 percent of the House Democratic caucus rejected former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) bid for Minority Leader, with 18 Democrats voting for other candidates, 1 voting present and another not even bothering to show up.
The moment was not festive at all for Pelosi this week, with longtime observers drawing comparisons to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), the white-haired loquacious technocrat who found nine Republicans defying his re-election bid as Speaker – and who ultimately stepped down shortly after the GOP’s majority slimmed in 1998. The scene left angry Democratic Hill aides and party strategists dumbfounded by Pelosi’s teeth-gritting cheesy grin as she handed new Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) the ultimate political trophy: the thick wooden hand-crafted gavel of the House chamber.
“What the hell is she smiling about?” complained one irritated Democratic strategist. The question was followed by a verbal machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of unfit-to-print profanity, the agony of defeat and partisan hate still clear on the campaign veteran’s red face.
It was a valid question considering the magnitude of Congressional Democrat’s electoral misfortunes, yet the incongruent extent of Pelosi’s ability to maintain leadership status. While informal polls and banter amongst Hill Democrats express a quiet and growing discontent with the arrangement, most bite their lips fearing reprisal from the Baltimore-born pol known for her ability to unleash unholy retribution on party dissidents.
While the vote was primarily a symbolic rebuke of the Pelosi Regime, the impact of it could be felt well beyond the pro forma niceties of the 112th Congress’ first week. Eleven Democrats voted for the long shot opposition candidate, conservative North Carolina Democrat Rep. Heath Shuler. Others voted for Minority Whip and Pelosi partner Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), with a few giving nods to Tennessee’ s Rep. Jim Cooper, California’s Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, Georgia’s John Lewis and Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur.
Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) was visibly absent, avoiding the vote altogether. And Congressional Black Caucus Member Sanford Bishop (D-GA), a moderate Democrat who experienced a down-to-the-wire nail biter election in November, simply voted “present.”
The embarrassment for Pelosi is palpable. But, the political calculus for Democrats is risky considering the open display of party disunity, in front of Republicans on the other side of the chamber aisle no less. It also sends a signal to the White House of rough times ahead for legislative initiatives in 2011, heading into the 2012 elections.
Hill progressives are already none too pleased with the selection of political insider extraordinaire William Daley as the permanent Chief of Staff for the White House, seething over his deep-pocket business connections and lack of connection with the left. How Pelosi can manage to hold her own control while playing a balancing act with restless liberals is an open question. But, with staff changes looming and re-election coordination in motion, the White House may be too preoccupied to even pay that much close attention.
Still, Speaker Boehner – as much of a political pragmatist as he is a loyal Republican – is clever enough to find vulnerable pressure points within the Democratic caucus when the need arises. Blue Dogs Democrats seem more apt to blame Pelosi for their circumstances, and while they will suffer certain retribution from the Minority Leader on a number of levels, they are banking on rejection of Pelosi as a useful campaign chip to keep seats in conservative districts.
Time will tell whether or not Pelosi can hang on as Minority Leader … or whether she can engineer a quick comeback by 2012.