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Clyburn’s leadership role ‘a work in progress’

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As Rep. James E. Clyburn settles behind his desk on the first floor of the Capitol, the view behind him — of the office buildings across Independence Avenue — is less than commanding. His office is high-ceilinged but narrow, and the walls are bare. Multiple aides are crammed into an adjoining room.

It’s a far cry from the spacious third-floor suite the South Carolina lawmaker occupied when he served as majority whip. But now that Democrats have been relegated to the minority, Clyburn is fortunate just to have an office in the Capitol and, more importantly, a place at the leadership table.

After their electoral drubbing in November, House Democratic leaders played an unusual game of musical chairs in which, rather than leave someone standing, they simply decided to add another seat. Thus was born Clyburn’s current title — assistant Democratic leader.

The post was created after it became clear that Clyburn couldn’t beat Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) for the minority whip position, but he also didn’t want to unseat either of the two men below him on the leadership ladder: Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson (Conn.) and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.)

The hastily conceived arrangement raised questions — particularly among members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Clyburn previously chaired — about just how much real responsibility the lone African American in leadership would have.

Seven months later, those questions still linger.

“It’s a work in progress,” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), a CBC member, said of Clyburn’s new role.

“Overall,” he added, “I am certain that Jim will make this a better job than other people thought it would have been.”

Clyburn himself is less equivocal.

“Absolutely, I’m happy with it,” he said of the job.

Above all, Clyburn said, he sees his role as a liaison between the leadership, the Appropriations Committee and the rest of the caucus on spending matters. He has put a particular focus on steering federal money into chronically impoverished areas, what he calls “communities that would be left out without some special consideration.”

Clyburn also has a seat at a bigger negotiating table. He is one of two House Democrats appointed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to participate in President Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction talks.

That dovetails with another role Clyburn says he has taken on, as “the caucus’ principal liaison to the White House.” Clyburn said he has spoken to Obama several times in recent months, both in person and by phone.

Clyburn’s appointment to the deficit negotiations has helped alleviate some concerns within the CBC.

“I didn’t just have reservations, I was angry,” CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said of his initial reaction to November’s leadership shuffle.

“However, it has turned out to be something we can all feel good about,” Cleaver said, since after Pelosi named Clyburn to the budget talks, “We think: ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as we thought. They’re utilizing his talent.’ ”

Clyburn is close to many liberals but also maintains relationships with moderate and conservative Blue Dogs. And as the only Democrat in South Carolina’s six-member House delegation, he is accustomed to working with Republicans when necessary.

“I think he’s one that helps to balance out our leadership,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said, between the liberal Pelosi and the more moderate Hoyer.

Clyburn notes that by one measure — the vote ratings compiled by the National Journal — he actually ranks more conservative than Hoyer. So he scoffs at suggestions that he was appointed to the deficit talks simply to serve as Pelosi’s proxy.

“All this stuff about me being a Pelosi ally — I hope I am — but I’ve also been accused of being a Hoyer ally,” he said.

For all the symbolic clout Clyburn may retain, he clearly has less substantive responsibility. He is no longer involved in vote-counting, nor is he the party’s chief messenger, as was the case when he served as chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

As majority whip, Clyburn had a leadership operation with at least 20 aides and an annual budget of more than $2 million. Now, he has six leadership staffers and a much smaller payroll. His security detail has been scaled back.

And then there’s that office.

“What he needs is more space to conduct the business that he has,” Hastings said.

Clyburn is just glad to remain in the Capitol, rather than banished to those office buildings visible through his window.

“Having a room in the Capitol is something that nobody considers you to be in leadership if you don’t have it,” he said, though he acknowledges a larger suite would be useful.

“This office here is fine for me [but] I wish they had more space for the staff,” he said. “I think my staff is challenged quite a bit because of lack of space, and I think it’s so unfortunate because I see a lot of space around here that’s not being used that well.”

Clyburn turns 71 in July, and next year will be his 20th in Congress. He said he has yet to decide how much longer he will stick around.

“I feel fine. I’m not bored with the job, I’m pleased with the job,” he said. “I’m running hard for reelection right now. I suspect after the next election I might start hearing stuff from my wife.”

And if Democrats manage to regain control of the House, will Clyburn be gunning for his old majority whip post?

“Absolutely,” he says. “At least that.”

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