Dem retirements touch off head-spinning leadership shuffle

Here’s what will happen before mid-November 2016 …

Major League Baseball will award two World Series crowns. The NBA will bestow two titles. The NHL will present the Stanley Cup twice. Both political parties will have held their conventions and tapped their respective nominees. And voters will choose the next president.

Only then, sometime in mid-November 2016, will the Senate Democratic Caucus gather to select its new leadership team.

A lot can happen between now and then. But even so, it appears that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is poised to succeed retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as the top Democrat in the Senate.

Again, that’s what’s likely to happen. Schumer quickly maneuvered to lock down his votes as Reid’s successor within hours of the Nevada Democrat’s announcement last Friday. What isn’t as clear is what happens down-ballot. It’s thought that Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wants to maintain his post as the number two. But there is rattling that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., may want to springboard deeper into leadership. And, then there is the wild card: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. There are outside efforts to court Warren to run for one of the top spots in the Senate. And there are those who want the Massachusetts Democrat to run for president – regardless of whether Hillary Clinton seeks the White House.

Warren isn’t yet running for anything, including an upgrade from her lower-level Democratic leadership position in the Senate. She said as much during a recent appearance on NBC. Durbin and Murray are friends and it’s unclear if there could be a challenge there, too, or if they could reach an agreement.

But there will be forces in Democratic politics who will push for diversity on the front line in the Senate. Never before has a woman held one of the two leadership posts in the Senate in either party. They’ll argue that a party that purports to advocate for women needs to show some representation at the top. Current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., broke that glass ceiling when she became the House minority whip in 2001 (later speaker) and is the only female to ever serve in the upper echelon of leadership in either body.

The conversation about Pelosi brings us to an interesting leadership nexus about the future of Democratic leaders not just in the Senate, but in the House of Representatives, too.

Pelosi has been the top Democrat in the House for 13 years now. That’s a remarkable run. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has been the number two since 2003, either as whip or as majority leader. Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., has been the number two or three since 2003 (he was the whip when Democrats held the majority). All are in their mid-70s … and no one appears to be going anywhere anytime soon.

After losing control of the House in 2010 and failing to regain the House after the 2012 and 2014 elections, many political observers thought Pelosi was out the door. The speculation was particularly rampant in 2010 and 2012.

There was chatter about grandchildren. Conversations about championing climate initiatives. Mentions of ambassadorships.

But Pelosi stays.

“Chad, they’ll have to drag her out of here,” groused one top Pelosi confidante last year when asked if the California Democrat intended to stick around – despite her party’s deep minority status.

The conjecture always swirled. If Pelosi left, would Hoyer earn the promotion he’s sought for so long? Would Pelosi deploy her considerable political muscle to block Hoyer? Would she anoint a successor? One forgets that Pelosi and Hoyer are natural rivals. Both hail from Maryland and her father was a congressman from Baltimore. The Pelosi/Hoyer connection dates back to the 1960s when they worked together in the office of the late-Sen. Daniel Brewster, D-Md.

This is why Pelosi caused a stir several years ago when she was House speaker. She plucked Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., from relative obscurity to serve as “special assistant to the speaker.” The House Democratic Caucus hadn’t elected Van Hollen to anything. But Pelosi had drafted Van Hollen for a choice spot at the leadership table.

Unquestionably, some saw Pelosi’s maneuver with Van Hollen as a power play against Hoyer. It was widely believed Van Hollen was Pelosi’s hand-picked successor should she leave the House.

But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., announced her retirement last month – and Van Hollen declared his intention to pursue her seat.

It’s far from a done deal that Van Hollen will secure the Democratic nomination for Senate. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., is also running. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has expressed interest. The same with Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., who could self-fund. Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., and John Sarbanes, D-Md. -- the son of former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. -- are also taking a look.

The joke was that the only member of the Maryland delegation not running for Mikulski’s seat was Hoyer.

So what does this mean in the House with Van Hollen suddenly out of the picture?

Time will tell. But interestingly, it’s not just Mikulski’s retirement that could impact House Democrats. Also consequential are the retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the likely presidential bid of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

With Boxer cashing it in, some attention on Capitol Hill turned to Reps. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., as a possible successor. However, the big player on the field now is California Attorney General Kamala Harris. If the contest were today, it’s Harris’ to lose.

Further, with Van Hollen out of the way, could that coax Becerra to stay in the House and matriculate in leadership if and when Pelosi, Hoyer and maybe Clyburn depart?

Then there’s Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who also serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Like Becerra, Wasserman Schultz is also ambitious. A few weeks ago, she considered running for Rubio’s Senate seat should he launch a White House campaign. But Wasserman Schultz then took a pass, saying she was committed to remaining at the DNC’s helm.

Wasserman Schultz also made her decision after Van Hollen made his Senate announcement. She has had her eyes on the House leadership ranks for years.

Then there are wild cards. If and when Clyburn retires, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) will push for a seat at the table. Presuming he doesn’t run for the Senate, Cummings is expected to be part of that conversation. There will also be talk about recent CBC chairs like Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus would like to have Becerra or someone else move up. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is one to watch. Pelosi recently swept the New Mexico Democrat into her inner circle, tapping him to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the national organization devoted to electing Democrats to the House.

But Pelosi has also brought someone else into the fold of late: Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. Israel chaired the DCCC for two cycles in 2010 and 2012. In the past six months, Pelosi tapped Israel for a new position, serving as “chair of policy and communications.” Israel is viewed as a possible heir apparent if the opportunity arises. Those chances grew exponentially with Van Hollen leaping out of the wheelbarrow. Pelosi’s effort to keep Israel at the leadership table bolsters his chances as well.

Another member to watch is Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. He’s the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

One dynamic that can’t be overlooked is the prominence of Pelosi. Watch to see if she hand-picks, either overtly or not-so-overtly, a successor. That’s why people were so focused on Van Hollen before. That’s why her selection of Israel and Lujan for special roles is important.

In the Soviet Union, political observers would always study which Politburo officials were seated closest to the general secretary at the May Day Parade. Such placement often shed clues as to who was in and who was out at the Kremlin. Did someone leapfrog another official and was now seated closer to Brezhnev compared to last year? Or did they disappear from the review stand altogether?

Keep an eye on the members with whom Pelosi keeps close company.

But there is another phenomenon at work here which could affect leadership elections in both the House and Senate. If Schumer does graduate to Senate Democratic leader, will the party be okay promoting Steve Israel? Will it accept two white, male, New York Democrats? Or do lawmakers just elect who they think will do the best job, regardless of geography and demographics?

Certainly power is fleeting. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., served as House Democratic Caucus chairman from 2009 through 2013. Years ago, it was presumed Larson may have an opportunity for a leadership upgrade. Never rule anything out, but few mention the Connecticut Democrat in those conversations any longer.

In December 2012, Larson held his final press conference with reporters as his time expired as caucus chairman.

“My grandfather Nolan used to say, peacock one day, feather duster the next,” opined Larson. “So I am heading up the feather duster caucus.”

Only one or two lawmakers mentioned on this list will make any headway toward their future goals. Timing, is everything. Some will undoubtedly be the odd man or woman out. And those who don’t earn a promotion may very well find themselves applying for membership in the feather duster caucus.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.