House Democrats averted a potentially stormy election fight and the unceremonious sidelining of a current member of their leadership team late Friday with a deal that keeps Reps. Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, and John Larson at the table.
The biggest development was the end of the Hoyer-Clyburn clash for Minority Whip, the No. 2 leadership post. Majority Leader Hoyer, of Maryland, will become the Whip, with Majority Leader Clyburn, of South Carolina, retaining a No. 3 leadership post with the new title of "assistant leader." Clyburn issued a statement Saturday afternoon expressing satisfaction with the arrangement.
Larson, of Connecticut, will retain his position as chairman of the Democratic Caucus. For a time, Larson's fate remained ambiguous as current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, about to become minority leader, focused on how to defuse the increasingly combative whip contest between Hoyer and Clyburn.
The new solution will require some creative maneuvering to give Clyburn a set of responsibilities that carry heft and meaning. That won't be easy as the leadership chores of the minority party in the House are minimal for any post other than leader or whip. The majority party establishes the rules, elects the speaker, sets the agenda, calendar, and terms of legislative debate --leaving the minority party to focus principally on opposition rhetoric and a handful of obstructionist parliamentary maneuvers.
Even so, Clyburn has been satisfied and has therefore ended his race against Hoyer. The battle had increasingly been defined by disagreements over campaign tactics (mainly Hoyer's habit of announcing caucus members who endorsed his bid) and an underlying sense of minority grievances as Clyburn stands as the highest ranking African-American in Congress.
Hoyer appeared to have the votes to prevail, but a source close to Clyburn said a sufficient number of Democrats withheld support from either candidate to leave the verdict in doubt.
Pelosi, in pursuit of post-election peace and leadership diversity, arranged the Hoyer-Clyburn pact that places them in the No. 2 and No. 3 posts respectively.
Pelosi issued a statement late Friday night that alluded to a deal, which made no specific mention of Hoyer, but details of which were later fleshed out by the leadership aide.
“Should I receive the honor of serving as House Democratic leader, I will nominate Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina to the number three leadership position,” declared Pelosi.
"Over the past four years, Congressman Clyburn’s effective leadership in the Whip’s Office was crucial to our passage of historic legislation on jobs, health care, veterans and Wall Street reform on behalf of the American people,” she said.
Pelosi followed up her Friday night announcement with a letter to Democratic colleagues Saturday afternoon in which she revealed her support for Clyburn assuming the new "assistant leader" position.
In his own letter to Democratic colleagues Saturday afternoon, Clyburn emphasized the need for diversity in the ranks of party leaders but said he also wanted to foster party unity.
“To me, 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 with a substantive, well-defined portfolio that will contribute in a meaningful way to our important work and to regaining the majority,” Clyburn said. “With your support of Nancy's proposal, I hope to continue to work towards building consensus within our Caucus and bridges to communities and constituents across the country.”
For his part, Hoyer issued a brief statement late Saturday that complimented Clyburn but made no mention of Pelosi. “Since the election last week, I have made clear my belief that it was important for my friend Jim Clyburn to continue serving our Caucus as the third ranking Member of our Leadership. It is my hope that happens when elections are held on Wednesday,” Hoyer said. Until Pelosi announced that she would run for the post of House Minority Leader, it had been widely assumed that Hoyer would serve in that post.
Pelosi faces a likely challenge from former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina who is expected to address his political plans on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Shuler’s bid is expected to fall far short, but it will enable the dwindling number of moderate Democrats in the House to voice displeasure with Pelosi if they so choose and give themselves some political cover back home. In many districts, Pelosi has become a symbol of Democratic overreach.
Shuler, in an interview with the Clay County Progress in North Carolina, acknowledged the long odds. “It will be very tough. It is probably a race we can't win,” he said. “But we need a moderate voice in the Democratic Party.”
Democrats formally announced Friday their leadership elections would occur next week when members return for a lame-duck session. Anxiety mounted within Democratic ranks that the Hoyer-Clyburn discord could be highlighted on the Sunday talk shows.
Democrats, with Pelosi as the leader, will have to deal with a minor uprising against the California Democrat, but her role in resolving the Hoyer-Clyburn-Larson saga cements, if any doubts remained, her dominant role in setting course for the caucus.
The leadership fight between Hoyer and Clyburn brewed because a party moving from the majority to the minority loses the Speaker's gavel, typically leaving it with one less leadership post, and a current leader can end up being the odd-man out.
Hoyer's and Clyburn's battle for votes from their Democratic colleagues had threatened to cause lasting wounds across ideological and racial lines. Clyburn's support had included the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hoyer had in his corner many moderates and a number of top House committee chairmen.