Rep. Nancy Pelosi issued what seemed like a perfunctory statement backing her colleagues in Democratic leadership.
“I endorse and look forward to working with Steny Hoyer as Majority Leader and Jim Clyburn as Majority Whip in the 116th Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement late Monday.
But that really demonstrated how enmeshed this trio of Democratic leaders have become after nearly 16 years ruling the caucus together.
Together, Pelosi (Calif.), Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.) have cheered on great Democratic accomplishments and rallied after brutal elections. They have overseen great political victories and then clashed in bitter moments of personal enmity, with each angling to take another out of power at one time or another.
Those old rivalries have been set aside, not necessarily forgotten, as they try to tamp down a rebellion of junior Democrats clamoring for new leadership.
This small but vocal bloc has made Pelosi its focal point, trying deny her return to the post of House speaker through a complicated parliamentary move. But the trio recognized that a threat to one is a threat to all, leaving the potential for all three party elders to get swept out.
Clyburn laid out the strategy most clearly Thursday after a two-hour caucus meeting when he declared his opposition to a fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus floating a potential challenge to Pelosi for speaker.
“She would be a threat to me, as well,” Clyburn said. “Because we put together a team, I’m supporting that team, and that team is Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.”
Hoyer rejected the idea that the midterms were a call for a generational change in leadership, saying voters want “a change in policies, not so much personalities or people.”
He praised Pelosi’s ability to count. “If she says she’s got the votes, I wouldn’t bet against her,” Hoyer told CNN.
Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have drawn support from vastly different wings of the caucus. This creates a natural tension but also explains why such a large majority of Democrats have been content to have each of them atop the caucus, a near-perfect reflection of the national party over the last few decades.
Pelosi, 78, has always commanded strong support from her state’s massive delegation and liberal women in the House. Those two voting blocs have only grown stronger after this month’s midterm elections crushed California Republicans and bolstered Democrats’ female ranks to record levels.
Hoyer, 79, has been the natural ally of moderates from the suburbs and Midwestern Democrats who complain about the party’s coastal elite lean. In the minority the past eight years, this ideological position seemed precarious, but — as always happens when Democrats claim the majority — those ranks are now swelling.
As majority whip from 2007 to 2011, Clyburn, now 78, hit the highest perch among members of the Congressional Black Caucus and is now on a path to become the first member to reclaim that powerful post.
This relative unity is a marked contrast to where things stood 12 years ago this month, the last time Democrats flipped seats and reclaimed the majority in a midterm election. Then, as Pelosi faced no internal opposition to becoming speaker, she turned her sights on Hoyer and tried to eject him from leadership.
Just days before the secret ballot, Pelosi broke her silence and swung her full support behind then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), one of her closest allies, in his bid to defeat Hoyer for the majority leader post.
It shocked the caucus, but Hoyer routed Murtha, and afterward Pelosi tried to quickly settle the bitter dispute. “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us. Let the healing begin,” Pelosi said at the news conference.
Pelosi and Hoyer’s relationship dates to their days as congressional aides in the same office in the 1960s, but the rivalry hit its peak in the late 1990s when they began campaigning against each other for a leadership post. That race came to fruition in 2001, when Pelosi defeated Hoyer handily and set herself on the path to take over the entire caucus in 2003.
Those two races have left Pelosi and Hoyer in a knowing deadlock — he cannot beat her for the top spot, nor can she find anyone who could oust him as the No. 2 Democrat.
In recent days. Pelosi has touted the endorsements of Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) and Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), along with Katie Hill and Mike Levin, two Californians who won Republican-held seats and helped propel Democrats into the majority.
What do all four have in common? They joined more than 150 Democrats last week in signing a letter endorsing Hoyer for majority leader.
Clyburn has always been the junior partner in the triumvirate, but he has had moments of ambition directed above. After the disastrous 2010 midterm elections, when Democrats lost 63 seats and the majority, Hoyer and Clyburn briefly squared off against each other.
In the minority, by tradition, there is one less leadership seat, leaving minority leader and minority whip. Hoyer had the edge over Clyburn, and rather than having a bitter clash, as in 2006, Pelosi created a new assistant leader position that Clyburn took.
In recent months, as some questioned whether Pelosi could win the speaker’s race, Clyburn chafed at how few times he was mentioned as a successor.
“I would probably offer myself for the position. I’m worthy of consideration,” Clyburn told The Washington Post in late August.
So far, no challenger has emerged to face Pelosi. A potential candidate, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), endorsed Pelosi on Tuesday after the leader announced that the Ohio congresswoman would chair a subcommittee on elections. Clyburn beat back a challenge so quickly that he will now stand unopposed for whip in next week’s leadership elections. The letter endorsing Hoyer last week made a challenge to him pointless.
His remarks 12 years ago sum up how the three feel now.
“It was that a team that had been successful was asked to continue to do that job,” Hoyer said.
Now, 12 years later, all three veterans are hoping that success keeps them doing that job.