Nancy Pelosi to lead House Democrats, but path is unclear

Republicans recaptured control of the House and made gains in the Senate on Tuesday night, sparking celebrations across the country.
By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:54 AM

House Democrats elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader Wednesday, turning to the once-powerful speaker to oversee a shrunken and demoralized caucus.

After two days of closed-door meetings in which they rehashed the election and argued about who was to blame, the Democrats remain uncertain of the political path forward. Speaking to reporters after the vote, Pelosi (Calif.) and her leadership team did not offer ideas for rebuilding the party ranks that were decimated by defeats in moderate and conservative districts, leaving behind the smallest group of House Democrats since the Truman administration.

"This is an experienced, diverse leadership team that is very strong," Pelosi said. "It is a team that took us to victory in '05 and '06 and will take us to victory again. In the meantime, I would say to the American people: We extend a hand of friendship to the Republicans; we look forward to hearing their ideas on job creation and deficit reduction."

While Republicans unanimously nominated Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) on Wednesday as the next House speaker, Pelosi faced a surprisingly strong rebellion against her hold on power. Her 150 to 43 victory revealed a schism, with many Democrats - including some who voted for her - upset to see the leadership remain intact.

The 2011 Democratic leaders are familiar faces. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who is currently Pelosi's No. 2 , was elected to the No. 2 job of minority whip. Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), currently Pelosi's No. 3, won the third-ranking position of assistant leader.

"So far there hasn't been the optical sign that people are looking for - that they get it," complained Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.). He was one of 68 Democrats who tried to put off the leadership vote until Dec. 8 so that members could have more time to consider their options.

Pascrell, a liberal, ended up voting for Pelosi. But he did not seem enthusiastic. Electing the "same old, same old" leaders, he said, sent a signal that Democrats have no intention of tempering their ambitious and partisan policy agenda. "We're not just electing people. We're electing a path to the future."

In her remarks after Wednesday's vote, Pelosi rejected that opinion and attributed the party's steep midterm losses to the sluggish economy and a $75 million GOP ad campaign that vilified her.

Many of the House Democrats who opposed Pelosi were members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a bloc of fiscal conservatives whose ranks were sharply cut on Nov. 2. Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog who survived the election, offered himself as a token opponent to Pelosi, and his 43 votes exceeded expectations. He found unlikely support among liberals who had backed Pelosi in the past, yet now think that Democratic leaders should pay a price for the party's defeats.

Pelosi, 70, Hoyer, 71, and Clyburn, 70, represent one of the oldest leadership teams ever selected by a congressional party caucus. On the GOP side, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), 47, currently Boehner's second in command, will take Hoyer's job of majority leader. And Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), 45, the head of recruitment for the Republican class of 2010, will become majority whip, the chief vote-counting job now filled by Clyburn.

The top three Republicans have been in Congress 34 years combined; the Democratic trio has served 71 years.

Pelosi's allies said she should be credited for historic, though unpopular, legislative victories on issues including health care and climate change. They said she is determined to make the economy her priority.

"Ultimately, we've got to produce and stand for policies that will bring down the unemployment rate. It's not who says it, it's what we say," Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.) said in Pelosi's defense.

"I've known Nancy for decades," Sherman continued. "She hasn't changed. What's changed is the unemployment rate."

In the two weeks since the election, Pelosi has expressed no public regrets about her decisions and has not given any sense, in public statements or in private talks with fellow Democrats, that a new approach may be in the works. Indeed, the only improvement that Pelosi allies have advocated is for Democrats to offer a more vigorous defense of their embattled leader against GOP attacks.

Pelosi and Boehner both lead caucuses that were significantly changed by the election. On the GOP side, scores of conservative "young guns" are charging into Washington, determined to slash spending and roll back Democratic health-care, education and environmental laws. There will also be a smaller, but politically relevant, contingent of freshmen from suburban swing districts.

Pelosi will lead a more liberal caucus stacked with members from urban areas on the East and West coasts. After losing the majority, the biggest change for House Democrats is the depleted number of voices from the industrial Midwest and South. Dozens of moderate Democrats were defeated, many of them after serving just one or two terms.

Liberal House Democrats were frustrated by the policy compromises they were forced to make to accommodate their colleagues from states including Ohio, Indiana and Georgia. For instance, during the health-care debate, the Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008 were instrumental in demanding that a government-run insurance option be dropped from the bill.

Senate Democrats also lost seats in the politically vital Midwest; they responded by making a series of institutional changes, including the elevation of a junior senator, Mark Begich of conservative-leaning Alaska, to the party leadership. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) also expanded the portfolio of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, who recruited the Senate classes of 2006 and 2008 and advocates a more pragmatic approach to legislating.

Reid is also in the middle of reshuffling several top aides in his leadership staff.

As Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) noted, the House Democratic ranks have virtually been stripped bare of moderate-to-conservative Democrats such as Begich, leaving behind more liberal members who remain loyal to Pelosi. "The caucus that Nancy is now representing is much more consistent with her own personal views and beliefs," Moran said.

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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