CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect title for House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
Barring another drubbing this fall, the House Democratic Caucus is unlikely to chase Rep. Nancy Pelosi off as its leader. That she might opt for retirement, however, has Democratic tongues wagging and is making some members nervous about who might assume the helm.
“We’re not a party of ‘young guns,’ ” bemoans one senior party strategist, a reference to the 40-something clique of House GOP leaders—Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Kevin McCarthy of California.
“Just look at the landscape. There’s a real dearth of talented, dynamic communicators right now in the caucus,” said the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the leadership. “People are either too liberal, or too conservative … or too old.”
(PICTURES: Who Could Succeed Pelosi as Top House Democrat?)
That is debatable; that the triumvirate of House Democratic leaders assuredly is not composed of “young guns” is not.
Pelosi, of California, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland are both 72. Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, is 71. By comparison, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is 62, Majority Leader Cantor is 48, and Majority Whip McCarthy is 47.
Pelosi has given no indication publicly that she plans to leave Congress soon, nor has she said anything about voluntarily giving up her leadership role. The same goes for Hoyer and Clyburn.
Still, there is talk. For younger members whose ambitions are boxed in by the gridlock above them, the run-up to Election Day could be a tough balancing act. Publicly, they must stick to the party line that Democrats have a majority to win back, and in doing so, return the speaker’s gavel to the only woman to ever hold it. Privately, they know now is the time to position themselves for future leadership races—and that they must do so under the radar.
Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra kicked off the speculation in December, when she said her mother “would retire right now, if the donors she has didn’t want her to stay so badly.” The younger Pelosi has since backed off that assertion, and Pelosi’s office has repeatedly downplayed that report.
What if Democrats don’t capture the House or come close to picking up the net 25 seats needed? If it looks like her party faces additional cycles in the minority, many Democrats see Pelosi calling it quits.
Colleagues, staffers, and outside strategists say that at least a half-dozen younger lawmakers—some of whom already hold positions where their work for colleagues could equal chits—are prepping for leadership ascension.
The names most often floated are Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra of California; Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland; Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York; DCCC National Finance Chairman and New Democratic Coalition Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York, who also serves as chief deputy whip; and Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania, the DCCC recruitment chairwoman who also manages the organization’s candidate services.
Others mentioned, some with close ties to Pelosi, include Rep. Anna Eshoo of California. She, like Becerra, could conceivably have one early advantage—geography. California’s delegation, long the center of Pelosi’s internal caucus strength, is House Democrats’ largest.
The No. 4 House Democrat, Caucus Chairman John Larson, 63, of Connecticut, has made clear that he wants to remain in leadership, although he is term-limited in his current role and it is unclear whom above him he hopes to replace. As the No. 5 Democrat, Becerra seemingly has the inside track to move up at least the one notch to succeed Larson and has been positioning himself to do so.
No one in the mix is willing to speak publicly about his or her own ambitions.
“Chairman Larson does plan to have a seat at the table next Congress, but right now he is focused … on helping the members of the caucus fight to restore the economy,” Larson spokesman Ellis Brachman said.
Most members and observers agree that Pelosi can remain No. 1 as long as she likes. She enjoys close personal relationships within the caucus and is congressional Democrats’ biggest fundraiser.
Also stunting open discussions of succession is Hoyer’s and Clyburn’s internal caucus popularity. Colleagues see both as working hard on their behalf. They are favorites among their own blocs of lawmakers and seen as deserving younger members’ respect.
Although both have done their time toiling in Pelosi’s shadow however, some say that when she leaves the caucus the baton needs to be passed to a new generation.
As for the age issue: “Be careful now!” Hoyer jokingly told reporters. “We’re 55 million strong, and we’ll get you,” he said, echoing a slogan from AARP.
Clyburn’s response took aim at the GOP and made the case for his staying put. If House Republicans followed the seniority system instead of “leapfrogging … Boehner would have more cohesion in his conference than he does now,” Clyburn said.
This article appears in the May 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.