With House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s decision Wednesday to remain atop the Democratic caucus, she will continue her role as Congress’s most prominent liberal voice, while freezing in place a younger generation of lawmakers angling to rise up the leadership ranks.
After a dramatic week of closed-door deliberations, Pelosi (Calif.) announced that she felt compelled to remain in leadership as Congress and President Obama embark on an effort to resolve a fiscal crisis. She laid out other issues such as limiting money in politics and empowering women in the workplace.
Then, she turned unusually introspective in acknowledging how hard it is for her to let go, recounting a conversation with her older brother, former Baltimore mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III, who tried to talk her into retiring.
“Being active in politics at this level is really insatiable,” said Pelosi, 72, a 25-year incumbent who has led the Democrats for a decade. “What I said to him was, ‘There’s not enough hours in the day for me.’ There’s so much more I want to do.”
Pelosi’s work ethic is unquestioned inside the Democratic caucus, with allies and enemies alike crediting her tireless schedule as a prolific fundraiser. The decision to remain, however, leaves in place a leadership team of 70-somethings who have held the same rank for the past seven years.
Although almost no one will openly criticize the leaders, the private grumbling is palpable among the next generation. Many shrug in disbelief that their caucus holds about 60 fewer seats than it did after the 2008 elections and that not a single change has occurred in the upper leadership ranks. Pelosi’s top deputies will remain Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), 73, and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), 72.
Younger Democrats look across the aisle at House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who will turn 63 on Saturday. His top deputies — Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), 49, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), 47 — are part of a cadre of 40-somethings that provided much of the ideological energy behind the 2010 midterm elections that routed Democrats.
Cognizant of its top-heavy rotation of white men, GOP leaders quietly supported Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), 43, in Wednesday’s battle for the No. 4 leadership post.
Asked Wednesday when such a generational change would occur with Democrats, Pelosi rejected the query as “quite offensive.”
The question now is whether this is Pelosi’s last hurrah, a two-year run to make an uphill charge at the majority. House Democrats will need at least a 17-seat gain, depending on how the last few undecided 2012 races are determined, and history will be against them, as the president’s party has traditionally lost seats in his second midterm election.
Left waiting in the wings is Hoyer, who has clashed with Pelosi in the past but who has dutifully served as her No. 2 for a decade. Upon her announcement, he sent a letter to colleagues saying he would seek another two-year term as whip, calling for party unity to support Obama and rejecting a switch to untested leaders.
The Marylander is fast becoming a modern John W. McCormack (D-Mass.), who served more than 20 years as the No. 2 for Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.), flipping from majority leader to minority whip as the Democratic standing in the chamber switched throughout the 1940s and 1950s. McCormack eventually ascended to the speaker’s chair in 1962 after Rayburn died, and he held the gavel for nine years.
Moments after Hoyer’s letter went public, Clyburn issued a similar request for continued service in his No. 3 post as assistant leader. Technically, the trio must win a vote in leadership elections, to be held after Thanksgiving, but they are assured victory, lawmakers and senior aides said.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, 54, a California Democrat entering his 11th term, is moving up to the No. 4 post because term-limit rules, which apply only to lower-level positions, forced Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) to step aside.
The only new blood coming into the Democratic leadership team will be from the race to succeed Becerra for the lowest-ranking position, vice chairman of the caucus. Reps. Joseph Crowley, 50, of New York and Jared Polis, 37, of Colorado are the leading contenders, along with Rep. Barbara Lee, 66, of California.
The fate of Pelosi, the only woman ever to lead a congressional party caucus, had been unclear since the Nov. 6 election left Democrats short of the majority, following the loss of 63 seats two years ago that ended her four-year run as the first female House speaker.
She spent the past week talking to lawmakers, family members and friends, never quite revealing what she planned to do. Senior aides who have worked for her for years left the Capitol on Tuesday night unsure of her decision.
Pelosi said her colleagues never wavered, saying, “I think they must have coordinated with each other, because their message was clear: Don’t even think of leaving.”