“I want your vote,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told a congressional candidate she had just stumped for at a campaign event.
The Democratic candidate, who has a good chance of knocking off a GOP incumbent, was very grateful for the Floridian’s help, but didn’t quite understand the request. Wasserman Schultz explained that the House Democrats will pick their leaders for the 113th Congress shortly after the Nov. 6 elections, and there is uncertainty about how all of this may shake out, in part because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California isn’t saying much about her plans amid speculation that she might retire soon.
Such speculation continues, though Pelosi did say in a January television interview that she would serve out her full House term if reelected. But her steadfast refusal to publicly commit to wanting to stay as leader has the rumor mill spinning.
At least one leadership post is known to be opening up—the Democratic Caucus vice chair—and Wasserman Schultz said she wanted to be in the leadership mix.
Wasserman Schultz, 46, got the candidate’s promise of support for at least the vice chairmanship, beating to the punch another member who would later be telephoning, California’s Barbara Lee, 66.
Such are the maneuverings of a handful of younger House Democrats scrambling to secure commitments in their bids for a seat at the caucus’s leadership table—or perhaps at its head.
Barring another shellacking this fall, the House Democratic Caucus is not likely to force out Pelosi, 72, as its leader, even if Democrats do not succeed in recapturing the majority. However, such predictions may be moot as speculation grows that history’s only female House speaker may leave Congress entirely, possibly by spring.
The scenario described by several lawmakers and senior congressional aides has Pelosi hanging on long enough to install a chosen successor but not so long as to possibly become the GOP’s bogeyman again in the 2014 midterm elections (as she was in 2010, when her party lost the House majority).
Only the No. 5 vice chairman’s spot (not including head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is certain to be up for grabs in closed-door elections tentatively set for the week of Nov. 11. It is a relatively unglamorous position, but it is at least a “placeholder” post for those with higher aspirations, especially given that the top three Democratic leaders are all in their 70s.
The No. 4 House Democrat, Caucus Chairman John Larson, 64, of Connecticut, is term-limited, and Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra, 54, of California looks poised to move up.
Meanwhile, neither Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, 73, of Maryland, nor Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, 72, of South Carolina, who are second and third in leadership, respectively, have said they are going anywhere.
Pelosi has steadfastly refused to say publicly what her post-Nov. 6 plans hold. Conventional wisdom maintains that should her post open up for any reason, Hoyer, who has long toiled in her shadow, would move up.
Hopes that Pelosi will stay at least a while longer accompany concerns over who can match her fundraising record. The San Francisco lawmaker’s close ties to the liberal base have enabled her to be a rainmaker, something seen as difficult for the more-moderate Hoyer to match.
More so than Hoyer or Clyburn, the three viewed as having the potential to pick up Pelosi’s fundraising slack are Wasserman Schultz; Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, 53, of Maryland, the former DCCC head; and Rep. Joseph Crowley, 50, of New York, DCCC finance chairman and head of the New Democratic Coalition. Also mentioned is DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, 54, of New York.
The race to succeed Becerra as vice chairman is the public main event, but behind the scenes some Democrats are taking the long view. There is growing anticipation that the entire leadership lineup is ripe for rearranging—either because of, or in response to, any effort by Pelosi to anoint her successor.
According to a longtime former senior Democratic aide, this prospect leaves nearly all those involved trying to perform “a delicate balance.... They must work to gain at least the implicit backing of Pelosi, but also be seen as their own person, someone who can represent a new beginning when she leaves.”
Becerra, Israel, and Van Hollen are seen as Pelosi protégés and favorites without any real base of their own. Becerra’s spot looks assured. Israel may opt to stay out of formal leadership and again lead the DCCC, leaving only Van Hollen’s path uncertain.
Crowley is all-in to replace Becerra. His surrogates say that 100 of today’s 190 House Democrats back him to ascend to the No. 5 leadership post.
Colleagues believe that Wasserman Schultz, who is not seen as a particular favorite of Pelosi’s, is aiming higher than the vice chairman post, given that she has developed a national fundraising network and profile as DNC chairwoman.
But she has become something of a wild card for handicappers now that she is unlikely to be offered the opportunity to stay on at the DNC or join a second Obama administration. If she takes on Crowley or awaits a total leadership realignment post-Pelosi, Wasserman Schultz has collected lots of chits on the campaign trail.
Former Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Lee and Rep. Jared Polis, 37, of Colorado, who would be the first openly gay member to enter House Democratic leadership, have not conceded the race to Crowley or anyone else. Both would have their own built-in constituencies within the House Democratic Caucus.
This article appears in the Oct. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.