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Nancy Pelosi offers Clyburn 'assistant leader' title in leadership peace bid

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:28 PM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved closer to retaining her top position among House Democrats on Saturday despite midterm losses that left the party with fewer seats than at any time since 1948.

Running aggressively to be minority leader, Pelosi (D-Calif.) brokered a deal between her lieutenants to stay on in second and third leadership positions next year, defusing what had become a heated race for party control in the House.

In a letter Saturday afternoon to her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said she would offer Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) the newly created position of assistant leader, keeping him as the third leader. She did not mention her internal rival, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), but her endorsement of Clyburn served as implicit support for Hoyer to serve next year as minority whip, the second-most senior leadership post.

Both men agreed to the deal, ending the contest between Hoyer, the current majority leader, and Clyburn, the majority whip, to see who could round up the most votes to be minority whip in the next Congress.

Rank-and-file Democrats must ratify this leadership team - the same leaders who oversaw the loss of at least 60 seats this month - in a secret ballot Wednesday morning. Because no other challenger has stepped forward, Pelosi is likely to keep her top position.

However, about two dozen Democrats have criticized Pelosi's decision to stay in power. This is a new development in Pelosi's eight-year leadership of the House Democrats - the first four as minority leader and the second four as speaker. During that time, she won broad support in the party for legislative accomplishments and for raising tens of millions of dollars to wage campaigns.

Now, her critics have likened the party's predicament to a sports team that suffers a losing season and must show its fans that it understands the problem by firing the coach or other top management.

Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) paraphrased a favorite saying of President Obama, Pelosi and her leadership team, who often accused Republicans of driving the nation "into a ditch"

"She just drove the bus . . . off the Grand Canyon," he told a reporter in his district. "I don't think she should be the leader of the Democratic Party."

Recognizing the discontent, Pelosi lined up countervailing support from allies such as the Sierra Club and the Service Employees International Union. With these major Democratic supporters and others backing Pelosi, it makes it more difficult for anyone to challenge her.

Supporters said her remaining obstacle to staying in power was achieving consensus on her leadership team because rank-and-file Democrats did not want to face a choice between Hoyer and Clyburn. As the minority party, Democrats will lose the speaker's slot and end up with one less seat at the leadership table. Hoyer and Clyburn are liberals, but Hoyer has strong ties to the several dozen moderate Democrats in Congress. Clyburn has equally deep ties to the liberal wing as the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus in an elected leadership slot.

Rather than allowing the two men to continue a divisive battle - which Hoyer appeared to be winning, based on public letters of support - Pelosi created a new position for Clyburn, with undefined responsibilities. Its title is similar to a different, non-elected post known as "assistant to the speaker" or "assistant to the minority leader." It's unclear how the new position will be funded or where its offices will be.

But unity was the goal and, if rank-and-file Democrats agree on Wednesday, unity will be achieved.

With Clyburn endorsed for the No. 3 position, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) has Pelosi's backing to stay on as caucus chairman when Democrats become the minority next year. Larson currently holds that title, but it's the No. 4 position in the majority. It would remain so under Pelosi's new leadership structure. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the highest-ranking Hispanic leader, would then stay on as vice chairman of the caucus, the No. 5 post he now holds.

"The best way to resolve this issue, maintain diversity in the leadership and cohesion in our caucus is to pull up another chair to the leadership table," Clyburn wrote Saturday afternoon in a letter endorsing Pelosi's plan.

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