Election 2010: How a GOP win could shake out for Congressional leaders

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 6:35 PM

Republicans head into Tuesday's elections hoping not just to make massive gains in Congress but also to deal a historic blow to the Democratic leadership teams at both ends of the Capitol. The result would set off a scramble for the spoils of victory among Republicans, as Democratic lawmakers maneuvered to grab the less powerful reins in the minority.

No party in power has had its House speaker and Senate majority leader pushed from office against their own will in the same election, but Sen. Harry M. Reid's (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) fates are very much in doubt. Majority Leader Reid is in a neck-and-neck race with tea party favorite Sharron Angle in his quest for a fifth six-year term. Speaker Pelosi's future is also up in the air as rumors swirl that if losses are as bad as some independent handicappers suggest, she would step down from leadership rather than run for House minority leader.

There is no historical parallel for such a dual ejection of the top congressional leaders. In 1994, Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) was defeated in his reelection race, but Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) left on his own terms, having announced his planned resignation long before the GOP wave had built to huge levels. After the 2006 elections that swept Republicans out of power, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stepped down from leadership and then resigned from office altogether a year later, but Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist (R-Tenn.) had announced his plans to resign years earlier.

Those are the only instances in which the speaker and Senate majority leader have left office at the same time since the positions of Senate floor leaders were established 90 years ago. For the most part, Senate leaders have cruised to victory in reelection, winning by an average of almost 25 percentage points, according to the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics blog. They have won 25 of 29 reelection bids. More Senate floor leaders - six - have died while still serving than have lost reelection.

Yet in this heightened partisan era, Reid's battle marks the third straight time a Senate floor leader has had to fight hard for reelection. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), the Democratic leader from 1995 to early 2005, lost his reelection bid in 2004. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the current minority leader, escaped defeat in 2008 by spending more than $20 million in a tough race in which he collected just 53 percent of the vote.

Here's the breakdown of the possible leadership shake-out if Republican gains are as big as some expect.

GOP detente

Months ago, the storyline inside the House and Senate Republican conferences was all about the internal battles to come. There was House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) looking over his shoulder at Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) incessantly annoyed by talk that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wanted to challenge him.

Flash forward, and the expectation of victory has soothed whatever tension actually existed. If Republicans seize the House majority, Boehner is expected to have unanimous support from all GOP corners to become speaker, and Cantor will take the No. 2 slot as majority leader. Both men have begun planning for those new roles, prioritizing legislative issues and considering when to send them to the House floor next year.

Boehner and Cantor - often seen as rivals - also appear to have agreed on how to apportion the less powerful leadership seats in an effort to defuse internal disputes.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a top recruiter of candidates who led the drafting of the party's policy platform, "Pledge to America," is in line to become majority whip, the No. 3 position. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), an arch conservative, is the Republican conference chairman in charge of the party's message operations. If he decides to run for governor or president, as is under consideration, Pence would likely give up his leadership post and set up the lone dispute for a position. The frontrunner would be Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the former leader of the conservative caucus known as the Republican Study Committee. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is viewed as a potential whip after having overseen such a well-run political operation. But the consensus now leans to Sessions, a close Boehner friend, staying on at the NRCC and being given additional leadership responsibilities and title.

On the Senate side, McConnell will easily be elected to a third term as leader, the only question being whether Republicans pick up the 10 seats needed so that he can swap "minority" for "majority" in his title. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) will continue as whip. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is likely to remain conference chairman, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) is expected to serve another term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Conference.

The real skirmishes for congressional Republicans are most likely to come over the top committee slots. Both leadership teams are working to smooth internal sparring, but several questions pose headaches. Does Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska) keep her top spot on the Senate energy panel if she wins, despite running as a write-in after losing the primary? Does Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) become House Appropriations Committee chairman despite opposition from conservative activists over his past earmarking work? Stay tuned.

Pelosi: Stay or go?

There have been recent precedents for House speakers leaving leadership after their party loses power. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) and Joseph Martin (R-Mass.) jumped back and forth between speaker and minority leader as their parties traded majority status several times in the politically unsettled post-World War II era.

All eyes are on Pelosi for signs Tuesday night and the rest of this week of whether she would try to stay on as minority leader should Democrats lose power. Multiple advisers say that no one knows the answer because no one has had that conversation with her. Pelosi doesn't publicly discuss defeat. In an interview on the afternoon of Republican Sen.. Scott Brown's stunning special election victory in Massachusetts in January, Pelosi declined to speculate how Democrats would respond to a Brown victory because she insisted that state Attorney General Martha Coakley would win.

With no foundation for the speculation, most insiders say that a resounding defeat for Democrats - a historically high number of losses in the 60-to-70 range - would persuade Pelosi to resign. A very close margin, a loss of 45 to 50 seats, might tempt her to keep her leadership spot because Democrats would have a chance at winning back the majority in 2012.

Should Pelosi leave leadership, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) would be the frontrunner to become minority leader. Hoyer is viewed with caution by many liberals, who dominate the caucus-voting process and whose power would probably strengthen as moderates are the most likely to be defeated Tuesday. But there is no natural candidate from the liberal wing, and Hoyer faced down a similar challenge on his left flank after the 2006 elections and easily defeated the late John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). In that race, Hoyer won a majority of votes from the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, despite Pelosi's public support of her close friend Murtha.

It would take a very strong, organized effort to defeat Hoyer, and none has yet to emerge.

The roommate war?

If Reid loses his seat and Democrats keep the Senate, no race in the Capitol could match the intrigue of that to succeed the Senate majority leader. Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) have been roommates in the home of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) since their days in the House in the 1990s. Durbin won his Senate seat in 1996; Schumer won his in 1998. Both soon began to angle for leadership spots.

They've been on a long collision course, and not just for the line to use the shower in Miller's Capitol Hill townhouse. Durbin, the majority whip, and Schumer, the No. 3 Democratic leader, have gone out of their way to publicly back Reid's reelection, and neither is openly courting votes out of respect for their colleague.

Each has his strengths. Schumer is a political animal who oversaw the pickup of 14 Democratic seats in 2006 and 2008. He has a strong fundraising network from that service, and he has donated more than $4 million from his overflowing campaign account to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other state committees over the past two years. With more than double the number of seats up for grabs in 2012, some Senate Democrats may want a political mastermind at the helm.

Durbin is viewed by some as a workhorse, not the media-loving show horse that Schumer's critics see. He has been a staunch defender of the Obama administration's priorities and a fierce advocate of such issues as the health-care overhaul. As a tactician on the Senate floor, Durbin comes across as a more natural leader to his supporters.

The final issue in a Schumer-Durbin contest may well be: How bad? How bad will a Democratic defeat be on Tuesday night? Which direction will Democrats want to take to shore themselves for 2012? Schumer is a more independent force and has jousted privately with the Obama White House over its communications operation. Durbin is Obama's closest ally in the Senate.

That could be a benefit - or a curse - depending on how steep the losses are for Democrats.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company