Two House Democrats call on Pelosi to leave leadership

In an exclusive interview with "60 Minutes," President Obama speaks with Steve Kroft about voter frustration and the losses by Democrats in the midterm elections.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:10 PM

A pair of House Democrats publicly called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step down from the leadership Thursday and others suggested the same privately, as the California Democrat hunkered down in the Capitol to mull over her future.

Pelosi made no public appearances as speculation swirled as to whether she would run for minority leader following the largest midterm rout in more than 70 years.

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) said Tuesday's election results were so bad that Democrats need a new leader who can recruit top-notch candidates in the conservative-leaning districts where the party suffered its steepest losses.

"We weren't successful with me as quarterback, so I lost my job," said Shuler, a former Washington Redskins quarterback whose team won four games and lost nine with him as a starter.

"She's so smart she recognizes that it will be difficult to recruit the candidates she needs to win back the House," added Shuler, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition that lost more than two dozen members Tuesday.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a moderate, also called for a new direction. "We need to shake things up," he said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Some liberals who consider themselves Pelosi backers also think she needs to step aside, given the thousands of campaign commercials that helped turn her into one of the nation's most unpopular politicians. The most common ad feature that Republicans used against Democratic incumbents highlighted how often the lawmaker voted with Pelosi, who was almost always shown in grainy images.

"She's been demonized unfairly. This wasn't her agenda. It was an agenda supported by lots of people, including myself," said one liberal House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize Pelosi, whom he considers a friend. "It wouldn't be good for her or the party [to remain in the leadership], and this is from someone who loves her."

Pelosi stayed out of public view Thursday, making comments only to progressive media outlets.

"I've gotten a positive response, but I haven't gone to a place where I've made a decision about that. Only today have I even looked at messages or anything that relate to me," she told the Huffington Post, suggesting that she would begin talking in earnest Thursday night to lawmakers about what she should do with her future.

On Wednesday, she met with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), her likely successor, and other members of her leadership team. Sources familiar with the talks said she gave no hint of her intentions.

As Republicans laid out a conservative agenda for next year, congressional Democrats were left to wonder when a decision would come from Pelosi, creating a sense of paralysis about which direction the caucus was headed.

Some liberals are reluctant to support Hoyer, who has served as Pelosi's deputy for eight years, because he is more closely aligned with moderates.

There is no consensus alternative to Hoyer, however, as most of the other liberal Democrats either do not have enough seniority or played a role in the party's unsuccessful campaign.

In the Senate, Democrats prepared for a scaled-down vision of what they can accomplish with a leadership team that will remain almost exactly the same, following Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's reelection in Nevada. Pinning most of the blame on the economy, some Democrats also faulted President Obama's political operation.

"It's pretty widely agreed at this point that the White House messaging was sub-optimal," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), citing the decision to blame the poor economy on former president George W. Bush when Democrats controlled every lever of power. "That's a little tough to believe."

Whitehouse said the agenda will have to be less ambitious than the comprehensive efforts on health-care reform and climate change legislation of the past two years, suggesting that although liberal activists would be disappointed, they would be energized by watching what Republicans do. "The realities of the terrain are ones that our progressive base voters will understand," he said.

Shuler, a potential new leader of the Blue Dogs, said he is calling for incrementalism and noted a private speech that former president Bill Clinton delivered to House Democrats at a retreat in Williamsburg in January 2007 after the party claimed the majority.

"If you can't get a dollar and you can get a dime, take a dime every time," Clinton told the lawmakers, according to one attendee who took notes. "Make incremental progress if you can."

Settling on a minority leader, however, is the first order of business. Hoyer has indicated privately that he will not challenge Pelosi, who still maintains a great amount of goodwill among colleagues for steering them to the majority in the 2006 midterms and her aggressive fundraising efforts on their behalf.

If she wants to run, Pelosi needs only a bare majority in a caucus that is now more liberal because of the defeats suffered by moderate and conservative Democrats. She would almost certainly face symbolic opposition from some Blue Dogs because those lawmakers survived their elections vowing to oppose her as speaker, making it politically impossible for them to vote for her again.

This is part of the reason why even some of Pelosi's liberal supporters think she can no longer serve as party leader.

"She's not the right voice," said the liberal rank-and-file lawmaker. "Steny would be a much better pick."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company