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.’ ”