With his formal entry late Monday into the running for minority whip, current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, ensured his party will endure a potentially bruising leadership battle as it prepares to move into the minority.
The Democrats’ current whip, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, had earlier declared his intention to seek the minority whip spot, setting the stage for a battle between Hoyer, a fiscally conservative moderate and currently the number-two Democrat under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in the House.
“We're very confident he has the votes,” a source close to Hoyer told Fox News after his announcement. Neither Hoyer nor Clyburn is a close ally of Pelosi, who has also announced her intention to seek election to remain the top Democrat in the House.
The jockeying by Hoyer and Clyburn came as defeated House Democrats began circulating amongst themselves the draft of a letter to Pelosi. Obtained by Fox News, the draft calls upon Pelosi to show “leadership in this dark hour” by “pass[ing] the baton” and allowing someone else to serve as the party’s House leader. There were as yet no known signatories, but sources told Fox News the letter as conceived by conservative members of the Democratic caucus, and circulated to all of the sixty-plus Democrats who went down to defeat last Tuesday night.
“Many of us want the chance to run again and reclaim the seats that we lost on Tuesday,” the draft reads. “With you as the leader of House Democrats, the hangover of 2010 stands no chance of subsiding….[W]e each experienced how Republican demonization of you and your leadership contributed to our defeat….Unfortunately, we fear that Republicans will further demonize you, and in so doing they will scare potential candidates out. The prospect of having to run against their own party leadership in addition to their Republican opponent is simply too daunting.”
A key fact in Pelosi’s favor is that most vanquished Democrats – with the possible exception of those contesting the outcomes of their races – will not be permitted to participate in the Democratic leadership elections. “Speaker Pelosi has been a very effective leader on Capitol Hill, a much less effective communicator,” said Democratic strategist Josh Block, a co-founder of the public relations and consulting firm Davis-Block in Washington. “And so this is a natural opportunity for those folks to speak out, and look for new leadership. At the end of the day though,” Block stressed, “it's clear that Speaker Pelosi has the support inside the caucus to get reelected.”
Meantime, the House GOP leadership, preparing to take control of the House early next year, was bracing for an internal battle of its own, over the post of conference chair. This post ranks number four in the House GOP hierarchy and oversees a staff of 25 to 30 in running the leadership’s messaging arm.
Current conference chair Mike Pence of Indiana has stepped aside, possibly to pursue a run for governor of the Hooiser State or for the presidency. With his departure, Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have declared their candidacies, and – like the Hoyer-Clyburn contest on the Democratic side of the aisle – the battle for Republican conference chair threatens to expose rifts within the party, even as the party celebrates last Tuesday’s thunderous triumph at the polls.
Bachmann, a familiar face on cable news programs, founded the House’s Tea Party Caucus and is touting her candidacy as an opportunity for the GOP to reward the grassroots movement that propelled the party to such strong gains last Tuesday. That has irked some rank and file Republicans, however, because they view it as an inherent dig at the conservative credentials of Hensarling, a longtime fiscal hawk who managed Pence’s unsuccessful 2006 challenge to Rep. John Boehner as minority leader. Boehner is now slated to become the next House speaker.
“I think the focus is going to be, ‘How do we get our work done?’” said former GOP leadership aide John Feehery, now a lobbyist with the firm Quinn Gillespie in Washington. “Having a long, drawn-out, and bitter leadership battle probably won't be something the Republicans are looking forward to. So, because it is an extra seat at the table, [they] should find ways to get everyone a job.”
Hensarling boasts the support of Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, likely to be the next House majority leader; Pence; and other key party figures. Bachmann has attracted the backing of Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Some within the GOP have voiced concerns about the optics of the Republican leadership being all-male and rebuffing a charismatic figure who is popular with the Tea Party.
Perhaps to blunt such criticism, party sources told Fox News late Monday that the leadership will likely include incoming freshman Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who enjoyed Tea Party backing in her defeat of four-term Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin. Noem’s newly created position would require an affirmative vote from the incoming GOP freshman class.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "Cheney One on One: A Candid Conversation with America's Most Controversial Statesman" (Regnery, November 2, 2015).