Senior House Democrat George Miller announced on Monday that he would retire at the end of this Congress, unearthing a flurry of questions over what it might mean for the party ahead of the November elections. Are more retirements imminent? Is Congress' liberal presence in peril?
Sources close to the nerve center of the House Democratic Caucus caution against rampant speculation, but they do acknowledge there's one person who stands to lose the most from the 20-term lawmaker's departure: his fellow Californian, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Over their years serving together in the House, Miller has been one of Pelosi's very closest allies. He has remained an adviser and a confidant, even as Pelosi surpassed him in the leadership ranks and shattered the glass ceiling as the first female speaker.
In 2010, as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Miller helped pass Pelosi's legacy bill, the Affordable Care Act. In 2014, Miller continues to hold an honorary leadership position despite lacking a formal title within the power structure.
In Miller, Pelosi is losing one of her best vote-counters, said one Democratic chief of staff. She's also, in the words of one senior Democratic aide, losing her "consigliere."
"He's something greater than an ally," the aide said. "He's her conscience. ... He can make or break a decision for her. She listens to him."
Another senior Democratic aide likened Pelosi's relationship with Miller to the one she had with Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., who died in office in February 2010.
"I definitely think, with Murtha and Miller being gone, she's lost both of her heavies," said that aide.
This aide added that Pelosi needs her progressive lieutenants with institutional knowledge more than ever, now, as she seeks to lead a large freshman class of moderate members who aren't always amenable to voting the party line. "She's definitely weaker," he said.
When Miller leaves at the end of the year, Pelosi will need to look elsewhere for members who can help fill the void, and sources say she has already started to elevate more junior members into positions of power.
Perhaps in a sign that she anticipated Miller's impending retirement, Pelosi in December 2012 installed Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey as a co-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a post that had been held by Miller for a decade.
Pelosi has also embraced Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, as a de facto member of her leadership team.
But neither lawmaker — nor any of the others with whom Pelosi is close, professionally and personally, like Steering and Policy Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — might be able to really take Miller's place.
"They don't necessarily have the gravitas among members to play that role," said a senior Democratic staffer. "Miller is Pelosi's stick: Keep folks in line. I'm not sure either [Van Hollen] or Andrews could play that role."
Aides close to Pelosi say that, at the end of the day, the House's top Democrat is resilient, with no plans to step down or step aside later this year or anytime in the immediate future.
And as for the impact Miller's departure will have on her day-to-day operations?
"It's a personal loss," said a Democratic leadership aide, "and that's the extent of it."
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.