Capitol Attitude: Pelosi's push for power

It’s only appropriate that Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, invoked Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne when describing his unsuccessful effort to dislodge House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., from her Congressional leadership post.

“We got in too late,” said Ryan of his quixotic bid Wednesday.

Ryan then paraphrased what football legend Doak Walker said about Layne’s two-minute drill heroics.

“‘(Layne) never lost a game. (He) just ran out of time,” Ohio Democrat said.

Ryan may believe additional time on the clock could have helped him increase the 63 votes he garnered compared to Pelosi’s 134. But there’s a more prescient parallel between Ryan and Layne. Layne is one of the last NFL players to take the field without a facemask. Similarly, Ryan’s challenge to the fabled Pelosi was a lot like suiting up for the gridiron, sans facemask.

Pelosi is a political juggernaut. She is hard to beat, even when her power and influence may have tumbled to their lowest ebbs since she became the House’s top Democrat in 2003.

There were few doubts Pelosi would defeat Ryan Wednesday. But the question was by how much. The important story here is not that Ryan lost - but that Pelosi won. And for now, the California Democrat remains unbeatable. Some Democrats view Pelosi’s staying power as the issue. That explains why there was a race at all.

“I have over two-thirds of the caucus supporting me,” Pelosi boasted two weeks ago.

When asked Tuesday evening if she had the votes to prevail over Ryan, Pelosi bristled at the interrogative.

“Oh, please!” scoffed Pelosi as she stepped into the House Democratic Cloakroom just off the floor.

One hundred and ninety-seven House Democrats cast ballots in Wednesday’s closed-door, secret ballot leadership contest (the figure includes the actual members who will serve in the new Congress as well as three of the four Democratic delegates to Congress from U.S. territories and the District of Columbia). Pelosi scored 134 votes. That’s 68 percent of the caucus, slightly more than two-thirds.

There’s a reason Pelosi is unquestionably the best vote counter in Congress over at least the past quarter century. One need only look at how closely she whipped the vote for the first version of Obamacare in November, 2009. The House approved the initial health care package 220-215. Flip three votes and the bill failed.

So when Pelosi predicts she’s going to snare two-thirds of the vote, she’s likely to receive two-thirds of the vote.

Former Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., challenged Pelosi for Minority Leader in 2010 after Democrats lost the House in the 2010 midterm bloodbath. Shuler was a conservative Democrat who represented fellow “Blue Dog” Democrats who leaned to the right or the middle. Shuler commandeered 43 votes against Pelosi six years ago. Almost all of Shuler’s support came from Blue Dogs who knew it was good politics in their right-leaning districts to vote against the gentle lady from San Francisco.

But the ranks of the Blue Dogs shrank precipitously after 2010. Few even exist now in the Democratic Caucus. Democrats held more seats in 2010 than they do today. So Shuler’s number wasn’t as impressive as Ryan’s. Not only did Ryan court 20 more votes than Shuler, but he secured the support from a higher percentage of the Democratic Caucus.

Secondly, Ryan couldn’t just rely on the few remaining Blue Dogs who took on Pelosi six years ago. His support came from a wide cross-section of the caucus. Pelosi frequently found some of her most-loyal supporters in the Congressional Black Caucus. But Fox News is told a good chunk of CBC members backed Ryan because some CBCers believed Pelosi wasn’t doing enough to protect the position now held by Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

One senior House Democrat who asked for anonymity fretted about geographical and cultural divides which cleave the caucus.

“The disconnect between urban and rural Democrats has never been greater,” said the lawmaker. “By sticking with the status quo, it is impossible to have our message resonate with rural voters. Nancy Pelosi won the Minority Leader race and if Democrats do nothing to address these deep concerns, that is exactly where Democrats will remain: in the minority.”

Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., echoed those concerns.

“I’m very worried we just signed a Democratic Party death certificate for the next decade-and-a-half,” said Schrader.

Pelosi may not be the right person in the eyes of some Democrats. Tim Ryan may not be the right person in the eyes of some Democrats. But Ryan represented an outlet to some Democrats to vent their frustration. Many frustrated Democrats took advantage of the secret ballot to simply air their grievances about the election.

That may not be fair to Pelosi. But reporters asked the Leader if Ryan’s 63 votes meant she’d face a tougher time leading her caucus. Pelosi wasn’t buying it.

“How many votes I get in the caucus is the least important item we could be discussing when we have so much at risk in this election,” said Pelosi.

In fact, Pelosi pivoted some of the conversation to an issue which unites most Democrats.

“I want to go on to the fact that the Republicans are trying to end the guarantee of Medicare,” said Pelosi.

The Leader started a drumbeat a few days ago, arguing that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., hopes to drastically alter Medicare as part of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Democrats align on Medicare. Pelosi knows that it won’t be long until the party has the perfect foil: President-elect Trump.

It’s one thing for Democrats to squabble among themselves. It’s another thing to stand in harmony against Trump next year. Democrats know that’s the real show.