By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 8:29 PM
Rejecting demands that she relinquish power after her party's losses in the midterm elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Friday that she will run for minority leader, potentially setting up an ideological battle within the Democratic membership.
In a letter Saturday to the roughly 190 members of next year's Democratic caucus, Pelosi said she has received "extensive and enthusiastic support" for her leadership bid. "Many of our colleagues, from all areas of our diverse Caucus, have been generous with their ideas and their support," she wrote. "I am grateful for the confidence that has been placed in me to be House Democratic Leader."
Pelosi said she hoped the defeated Democrats "will continue the fight and rejoin us again in two years." This has been a sticking point among moderates who held on Tuesday, with many arguing that so long as she is the party leader they will not run again.
Several Democrats called this week for the Californian to step aside after the defeat of at least 60 Democrats and the return of the House to GOP control. Others said the same thing in private, describing a feeling of frustration with her tough, uncompromising leadership style. Senior Democratic aides said Friday that she will face some opposition in the secret ballot likely to be held the week of Nov. 15.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) compared the situation to that of a sports team that has had a bad season. "When you suffer a defeat as big as we have, you have to change something. And often you have to change the person who led you in that direction," he said.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Friday, before Pelosi's announcement, "My perception of what the minority leader does is communications, and I don't think that's her skill set." Yarmuth, a liberal who calls himself "a big fan" of Pelosi's, later announced that he would support her for minority leader.
Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) told CQ-Roll Call, "We need some new direction, and I think the best way is for her to move on."
But Pelosi's allies, who spent the past few days quietly sounding out other Democrats, said that despite grumbling in the ranks, Pelosi has no obvious challenger, making her the clear favorite to win in a caucus that is more liberal after the loss of many moderate Democrats.
She needs just a bare majority of Democrats to become minority leader, and she can count on the support of more than 30 other Californians in a contest that will require fewer than 100 votes for victory.
Pelosi and her inner circle, made up of the party's leading liberals, defended the aggressive agenda of the past two years and rejected the idea that the massive defeat was a repudiation of those policies or of the speaker. They blamed their losses on the struggling economy, and they said President Obama bears much of the responsibility for Tuesday's electoral rout.
Relations between the speaker's office and the White House appear strained, as they often have in the past. Administration officials said privately that Pelosi was to blame, in part, for the loss of a huge number of seats, saying that she did not capitalize on her majority as well as she might have. Pelosi's closest allies said her stature had fallen because Obama and his top aides did not stand up for her.
"There's no evidence they rose to her defense," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), her best friend in Congress.
The president has not come forward to say whether he thinks Pelosi should stay on as Democratic leader.
"The White House does not comment or get involved in leadership elections," White House spokesman Bill Burton said. "As the president has said before, he appreciates the work of the speaker and the entire House Democratic leadership team, who have been great partners in moving the country forward. He looks forward to working with them in the years to come."
After announcing her leadership run on Twitter, Pelosi sent a formal letter to her Democratic colleagues. "Our work is far from finished," she wrote. "As a result of Tuesday's election, the role of Democrats in the 112th Congress will change, but our commitment to serving the American people will not. We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back.. . . I have decided to run."
On Friday, Republicans appeared almost giddy at Pelosi's decision.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Of course, if House Democrats are willing to sacrifice more of their members in 2012 for the glory of Nancy Pelosi, we are happy to oblige them."
On Friday, the "FIRE PELOSI" sign that hung outside Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington was changed to read, "HIRE PELOSI."
Pelosi supporters said the 2012 elections would be a referendum on the economy and not on the Democratic agenda or Pelosi's leadership style.
"The very fact that they have been attacking her so much is driving her in part not to slink away," said Rep. Jan D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "They want to say: 'See, we chased Nancy Pelosi away.' Well, Nancy Pelosi doesn't get chased away."
The liberal flank of the caucus questions whether anyone else could keep the troops in line as Republicans seek to dismantle such Democratic achievements as the health-care and Wall Street overhaul laws.
"I am confident that under her leadership we will never abandon our principles," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), one of the negotiators of the health-care bill.
But some other lawmakers fear just the opposite. If Pelosi stays on as leader, they contend, a small group of moderate Democrats from swing districts may choose to vote with Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming speaker, on contentious issues.
Pelosi's wish to remain in power has thrust the party's No. 2 and 3 leaders, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the majority leader, and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, into a potential battle over the job of minority whip. Hoyer draws much of his support from the party's diminished ranks of centrists and conservatives; Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in congressional history, has a strong following among liberal Democrats. Many insiders are distraught over the possibility of a bruising ideological fight and fear what such a race would do to party unity in the weeks and months ahead.
If Hoyer does not win the whip's race, or backs away out of deference, the few remaining moderate Democrats will see a leadership table that is completely dominated by liberals. If Hoyer topples Clyburn, the Congressional Black Caucus may find that its most senior voice is thrust out of the leadership.
"Most of you know my record, and all of you have my promise that I will listen to each and every member and work harder than anyone to achieve our goals," Clyburn wrote in a letter to colleagues seeking their support. "By working together, respecting each other, and celebrating our diversity, we will come back a stronger and more resilient majority."
Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut, Shailagh Murray and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.