As lawmakers come back to Washington, D.C., for the first time since the elections, the Democratic leadership picture remains frozen in place as members wait for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to announce her plans.
The California Democrat has always kept tight council, and she was reticent about the future in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 elections when deciding whether to stay on as leader after the tea party wave swept Republicans into control of the House.
But Democrats say there are even fewer signs this time around about her intentions.
The result is an excruciating waiting game for a cast of ambitious Democratic leaders and would-be leaders, several of whom have high profiles but no obvious spots to fill in the next Congress. And rank-and-file Democrats are jumpy as they track the rumors flying through the caucus.
Pelosi’s future in the history books is secure as the first female speaker of the House and a key player in passing the Democrats’ health care overhaul in 2010.
But her decision on whether to continue as the minority leader for at least another two years will shape her legacy. Will she step down now, allowing her sometimes-rival Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Md., to ascend to her position atop the Democratic Caucus? Or stay on, hoping to build up a successor of her choosing?
Democratic insiders, in the dark about Pelosi’s closely held plans, argue vigorously about which path she will take. But people who know Pelosi well do not expect her to opt for a quick exit.
Many years ago, Hoyer’s political career took off like a rocket in the Maryland state Senate, and he became its youngest president ever. But in the House, his path has plateaued for a decade after losing a bitterly fought leadership race against his boss, Pelosi.
The most moderate member of the Democratic leadership team, he has since served as Pelosi’s earnest deputy, even as Pelosi’s loyalty to him has remained in question. In 2007, she backed a bid by the late Rep. John Murtha, Pa., to be majority leader, but Hoyer beat back the challenge to remain Pelosi’s No. 2.
Hoyer is well-liked in the caucus and maintains his own strong base of support, including loyalty from the Congressional Black Caucus.
If Pelosi and Hoyer each have their own spheres of influence, Rep. James E. Clyburn, S.C., is touted for his ability to reach the entire caucus.
Clyburn briefly challenged Hoyer for whip at the beginning of the 112th Congress. Pelosi intervened, creating a new, assistant leader position for Clyburn. Few expect Clyburn to take another shot at Hoyer. Rep. Xavier Becerra, Calif., will continue his climb up the leadership ladder, cruising on his way to the caucus chairman position without even a challenge.
Becerra formerly chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and maintains close ties to its members, whose numbers climbed on Election Day.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and John B. Larson of Connecticut form a trio of homeless leaders. With Pelosi in place, there is no obvious leadership slot for any of them, though predicting where they would end up if Pelosi departed is complicated.
Van Hollen is thought of as a leading contender to be Pelosi’s favored successor, although the climb would be steep for him to contend with Hoyer. There is also chatter in his home state of Maryland that he could become director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, has spoken to members about filling an assistant leader slot, but Clyburn is in that job now.
Larson is waiting for Pelosi, but members sometimes speculate he could mount an uphill challenge to Hoyer.