Despite heavy courting from the 2008 presidential wannabes, the four top House and Senate party leaders are determined to spend the coming months on the sidelines and refrain from making any White House endorsements until clear nominees emerge.
Leadership aides say the Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders see little political benefit to making an early bet on a race that already stands to create intraparty divisions and distract from their legislative goals this Congress.
What’s more, at least two House Members and seven Senators are seriously eyeing a candidacy — a pool that promises to create chaos for leaders as they try to keep their caucuses unified and focused.
“What do you gain by getting involved?” asked a prominent Democratic operative. “When you are in a leadership position, the person who wins is going to work with you no matter what. If the person loses, you look weak.”
As such, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) all plan to hold back on choosing sides until their party vets a nominee. That posture comes even as candidates continue to line up key Congressional endorsements and pressure mounts to secure the high-profile backing of prominent party officials.
Already several leading Democratic Senators have taken sides, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who has gotten behind his Illinois colleague Sen. Barack Obama, and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who is siding with home-state Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Several Republican Senators have lined up, too, most notably Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
On the House side, endorsements are starting to fly as well. So far, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has made the heaviest push to shore up House GOP backers — and in so doing caught the eye of several leaders including Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.). Despite suggestions that Boehner may prefer Romney, however, his aides insist the Republican leader doesn’t intend to make an early weigh-in on 2008.
“The Republican leader will stay on the sidelines until we have a nominee,” said Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy.
Pelosi also plans to keep that posture as the Democratic primary heats up. Her stance is a break from the 2004 cycle when she endorsed former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Gephardt’s run for the presidency cleared the way for Pelosi to become the top House Democrat, and it was no secret that she felt both personal and professional loyalty to the former House leader.
This time, Pelosi has friends involved in the race as well, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), whose sister was the Speaker’s roommate at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. Still, Pelosi aides insist she will not get involved this time until a Democratic nominee comes into view.
“The Speaker is the leader of the Democrats in the House,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. “She doesn’t feel it is her role to do it. She believes the process should play out.”
So far, just two House Members are running for the White House in 2008: Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.). Across the Dome, Senate leaders are maneuvering around more than a half-dozen colleagues who are mounting presidential bids. On the Democratic side, Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.), Dodd, Clinton and Obama are stepping into the race; while Republican Sens. McCain, Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) are all considering a candidacy.
Indeed, the Senate White House hopefuls would love to nab the support of their respective party leaders, but like their House counterparts, neither Reid nor McConnell plan to get involved. Endorsing early, if at all, simply hurts their ability to lead already diverse caucuses and could undermine their power under the Dome, Democratic and Republican leadership aides say.
“It doesn’t make sense, in fact it’s the opposite of making sense” to endorse, said a senior Republican Senate staffer. “Especially when you have so many Members of the Senate either actively pursuing or considering a race for the White House.”
Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid, said his boss “needs to treat everyone fairly” and that “all the candidates are his friends and his colleagues.”
“It goes without saying that he’s going to keep his powder dry,” Manley said. “The only involvement he’s going to have with them is to encourage them spend as much time and money in Nevada as possible.”
Similarly, McConnell also will keep his distance as the race unfolds.
“He’s confident that the voters of New Hampshire and Iowa don’t need his opinion before making their votes,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. “He’s just not going to choose among the Members of his caucus, when he’s working on behalf of them all.”