Pelosi Prevails Over Uneasy Democratic Caucus

For hours Wednesday morning and afternoon, while House Republicans went through an almost perfunctory exercise of electing the next Speaker of the House, Democrats vented steam over the results of the November 2nd election. Dozens rebelled against the existing leadership team. Others simply were too shell-shocked to give Nancy Pelosi a vote of confidence so soon after their party lost over 60 seats.

When all was said and done, the leadership team will be the same as last last year’s. Pelosi won her race against Blue Dog Heath Shuler (NC) — a mostly symbolic opponent — handily, and everybody else took one step down behind her. Steny Hoyer (MD) will become the minority whip. Jim Clyburn (SC) will settle into a new, and ill-defined role as assistant minority leader, and John Larson (CT) and Xavier Becerra (CA) will retain their roles as conference chair and vice-chair.

Getting there was a saga Democrats are eagerly working to put behind them.Before Pelosi won her race, a full 68 Democrats voted to delay the leadership election until December — an implicit signal that over a third of the caucus is uncomfortable with her continued leadership, and would like to give another contender more time to issue a serious challenge.

In the end, though, the one person to try was Shuler, who ran as an extension of a campaign promise but never stood a chance. He did little to round up votes — but won the support of 43 members in a caucus with only some two dozen Blue Dogs.

“It was a message that it’s more than just the Blue Dogs who have concerns,” Shuler told reporters after he was defeated.

TPM asked Shuler and his gathered supporters — Reps. Jim Matheson (D-UT), Mike Ross (D-AR), and Larry Kissell (D-NC) — whether any of them planned to support John Boehner (R-OH) for Speaker. All said no. But anybody can be elected Speaker of the House, and all four said they’d cast a protest vote for Shuler.

Other members had a gentler take.

“They haven’t voted no-confidence,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) — a Pelosi ally. “They haven’t said that they’re against the leadership, it’s that they’d prefer somebody else…. People were just getting up there now and saying we’re not voting for Pelosi, but we like her.”

“Depending on how you voted, there may be lost of reasons to cast that vote,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) who just eked out a victory in a tight reelection race. “It need not mean I oppose this leadership. It could mean other things as well.”

(Connolly wouldn’t say whether he sought to delay the vote or not — though most Pelosi supporters were perfectly open about their positions.)

In the end, the most persuasive arguments in the room were of two distinct species. When Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) nominated Pelosi, he touted her fundraising prowess and generosity and her relentless advocacy for Democrats and Democratic causes.

But others sought to let the air out of her opponents’ fear that she will once again be used against them when campaign season rolls around again. No matter who serves as Democratic leader, in 2012, all members will be running on the Barack Obama ticket.

“I think that’s pretty standard political knowledge that in two years it will be the President’s election,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY).

Despite all the Sturm und Drang, these sorts of intramural squabbles are common after a big defeat — recall the GOP minority leadership battles of recent years — and are quickly forgotten when political fortunes turn (again, see the GOP minority years). And on most policy issues, Democrats will happily stand with their leadership.

“Some of those most critical of the Speaker will be most critical of the Republicans, in that regard,” Frank added. “I think if they try to dismantle the consumer protection bureau or take away major parts of the health care law, that Democrats will be very united.”

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