After Upheavals, Leaders Look Safe — for Now
Following a three-year period during which nearly every Congressional leadership position changed hands at least once, the top party leaders in both chambers now appear — barring any dramatic events or massive electoral surprises — relatively secure in their jobs with little turmoil likely on the horizon.
After ushering in a new leadership just eight months ago, Republican and Democratic Senators alike aren’t anticipating any major shakeups in their respective hierarchical chains — even if the 2008 elections bring serious setbacks for their party.
“I think it’s fair to say that the current members of the leadership are here to stay,” said a senior Republican Senate staffer.
Republicans and Democrats alike say that, at least in the near term, there are few if any circumstances that could trigger changes at the top. Observers in both parties said they don’t foresee their newly elected Senate leaders retiring unexpectedly, stepping aside or facing a challenge from another lawmaker.
“The Democratic leadership team is well-respected by their colleagues,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide. “The caucus is more unified than it has been in recent years. I don’t see any of those guys going anywhere anytime soon.”
Those projections come even though a few Senate leaders are in cycle in 2008 including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). Democrats are heavily targeting McConnell in particular, but most observers agree that the possibility that he would be ousted from office this cycle remains remote.
“Democrats started attacking McConnell pretty early,” said one Republican Senate aide. “I think we were surprised by the level he seems to be treating any potential challenge he could have, but the truth is he doesn’t have a lot to worry about.”
GOP Senators selected their lineup of leaders in November 2006, shortly after the devastating elections that sent the party into the minority. McConnell, then the party Whip, ran unopposed to take the Republicans’ top leadership post that had been held by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.). Frist retired at the end of the 109th Congress.
McConnell’s ascension opened up positions underneath him, including the No. 2 post, GOP Whip. That job brought the only contested race for leadership last year — Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) bested Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) by just one vote to win the position.
Lott, who formerly served as the Majority Leader and Minority Leader, has suggested he is likely to retire in 2012 when he faces re-election again. Until then, however, most Republicans anticipate he will stay in his current position as Whip.
“Lott has no interest in running against McConnell,” insisted the Republican staffer.
Also elected by the party in the fall were Jon Kyl (Ariz.) as Republican Conference chairman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) as Republican Policy Committee chairwoman and Cornyn as the Conference vice chairman. Similar to McConnell and Lott, none of those leaders is looking to retire, step aside or mount a future challenge to one of their own.
On the Democratic side, the 110th Congress brought few surprises to its leadership lineup as well. For the most part, Democratic Senators simply agreed in November to add majority to the titles of their top leaders in selecting then-Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) to become Majority Leader and then-Minority Whip Durbin to become the Majority Whip.
At that time, however, Reid created a new Democratic Conference vice chairman position for Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee successfully masterminded a surprising six-seat gain for his party in the 2006 election. Reid also looked to Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) to take on the role of Conference secretary, a position previously held by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).
Schumer is widely viewed as the most ambitious Senator in the Democratic leadership, but no one expects he would even consider trying to topple Durbin or his close confidant, Reid. If, however, Reid opted to retire in 2010, many believe Schumer could consider making a play for the Democratic Leader job, a position on which Durbin also has set his sights.
In the meantime, however, Schumer is likely to stay put as vice chairman, as are the other elected Democratic Senate leaders.
“None of them is going anywhere and no one is in danger of losing election,” said another Democratic aide. “I think that’s the team.”
The House leadership outlook appears similarly serene — for now.
Despite a bruising internal leadership battle on the eve of the 110th Congress, House Democrats appear ready to make a much smoother transition should they maintain the majority following the 2008 election cycle.
“I think Members are generally happy with the performance of the leadership, and planning the agenda that we set out at the beginning of the year,” said one House leadership aide, who asked not to be identified.
Several Democratic aides noted that the former rivalry between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) — significantly amplified when Pelosi backed Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in the competition for Majority Leader in fall 2006 — has transformed over the 110th Congress, shifting from competition to harmony, and muting any expectations of future challenges.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is anticipated to maintain his post, and although Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is widely expected to eventually move up within the hierarchy — potentially sparking an intraparty fight — for now, the Illinois lawmaker is expected to spend a second Congress in his current post, after which he will be term-limited out of the job.
Potentially more contentious battles could emerge over committee chairmanships, however, as Democratic leaders have yet to revisit House rules limiting their Members to six-year terms leading panels, all of which would expire at the end of the 112th Congress.
But should the House reverse itself after only a single term under the new Democratic leadership, observers on both sides of the aisle asserted the current majority likely would evict much of its current leadership team, focusing “at the very least” on Pelosi and potentially Hoyer.
Many Democratic aides refused to discuss such a scenario; however, one leadership aide who asked not to be identified asserted: “Clearly humidity and boredom have lead us to this academic exercise, but speculating beyond the 2008 election is silly. … The leadership team will continue to serve and they enjoy the support of the American people and the members of the Democratic Caucus.”
But the House leadership aide pointed to House Republicans’ decision to retain members of their own leadership team — now- Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), despite losing the 2006 election cycle — suggesting that Democrats could be more lenient.
Across the aisle, Blunt has asserted publicly that he will not challenge Boehner for the top GOP job regardless of whether Republicans retake the House majority in the 111th Congress, but it remains to be seen whether challenges could be raised by more junior GOP leaders, including Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) or Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.).