House Leaders’ Races Lack Zest

Posted November 15, 2008 at 12:47am

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) each appear headed for another term leading their respective parties, but the two are clearly going in different directions.

Wielding a strengthened hand, Pelosi returns this week to sew up a leadership team that she helped stock with loyalists who tilt to the left.

And while Boehner faces a late, long-shot challenge from Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), he is expected to survive easily after engineering a leadership shuffle underneath him that tilts to the right. But Boehner will end up heading a GOP struggling to rebuild and remain relevant without the White House and with fewer Members.

In the days since the elections, Pelosi maneuvered to clear Rep. John Larson’s (Conn.) path to the Democratic Caucus chairmanship, a post that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is quitting to become chief of staff in the Obama White House. Larson initially faced a possible challenge for the job, the fourth-ranking leadership slot, from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.). But Pelosi persuaded the Marylander to take another turn heading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, offering him a new policy portfolio as Assistant to the Speaker as a sweetener.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), another loyal Pelosi lieutenant, is the odds-on favorite for the Caucus vice chairmanship, though Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) is also making the race. The likely lineup has prompted grumbles from moderate Democrats, who complain that with Emanuel gone, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) is set to be the only representative of their wing of the Caucus still at the leadership table. They had been pressuring Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), a leader of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, to make the race against Becerra. But Crowley opted to sit it out, endorsing Becerra early last week.

With the leadership races settling down, House Democrats have been drawn into the bruising contest between Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and second-ranking Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) for control of the panel. Dingell took a stab at the heart of Waxman’s base Friday by appealing to the 151 lawmakers who last month signed onto a letter with the California liberal outlining climate change goals. Dingell made the case that a draft climate change bill that he released days after the letter meshes with the targets that the lawmakers laid out.

Waxman’s allies have pointed to the long list of signatures on that Oct. 2 letter as evidence of the deep support among Democrats for the veteran lawmaker’s leadership on the issue.

But Dingell supporters challenged that notion in a Friday afternoon conference call with reporters, noting that many — in fact, about a dozen — of those signing onto the letter have publicly declared their support for the Wolverine State lawmaker in the chairmanship fight.

On that call, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a member of the Energy and Commerce panel and whip for Dingell in the contest, tamped down talk of a possible deal that Democratic leaders could strike between Dingell and Waxman to defuse the battle. “There’s really nothing to discuss,” he said, arguing that because Dingell has run the committee “like a machine,” there is “no basis for removing him” and therefore “nothing to negotiate.”

Dingell allies have managed to maintain a public drumbeat of support for the chairman with targeted rollouts of backers on and off Capitol Hill. Their latest endorsement will come today in a letter from more than 30 wildlife and conservation groups touting his environmental record. Waxman’s camp, by contrast, has opted to wage its campaign behind the scenes. Democratic insiders watching the race unfold said it appeared too tight to handicap heading into the weekend.

Pelosi has taken pains to take a hands-off approach to the fight, but many moderates see the contest as their last chance to assert themselves and check the power that Pelosi and other liberals appear poised to wield.

Meanwhile, the power differential between Pelosi and Boehner will grow wider.

“Pelosi has an institutional advantage,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). “When you’re Speaker, you’ve got a lot more tools to keep people happy.” He pointed to committee slots, staff positions, other Congressional perks such as Congressional delegations and, not least among them, legislative favors — advantages compounded by the fact a Democrat will be in the White House. Boehner will be hard-pressed to offer those benefits to his Members. “When you’re Minority Leader, you don’t have that flexibility. You can only promise what you would deliver if you regained the majority,” Smith said.

Although Lungren announced Friday afternoon that he would challenge Boehner for the position, other Republicans and GOP aides said they didn’t see him providing anything more than token opposition. Barring a last-minute change of heart, Boehner has avoided challenges from Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), who decided to seek the slot vacated by Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who has repeatedly rejected efforts to draft him.

Boehner also tapped former rival Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) to run for GOP Conference chairman, helping appeal to the party’s conservative wing; threw his support behind Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) in a bid to oust National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.); and is backing Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) to take the Conference vice chairmanship being vacated by Rep. Kay Granger (Texas).

The oddest moment of the GOP leadership shuffle came last week when Pence declared that he has not endorsed Boehner for leader and would vote for a more conservative Member for leadership if one emerged. Pence’s comments came after a blogger accused him of selling out in return for Boehner’s support for the Conference chairmanship.

Pence still hasn’t endorsed a candidate for leader, spokesman Matt Lloyd said.

Rep. Mike Burgess (Texas) also is bidding to unseat GOP Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), a longtime Boehner ally.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has repeatedly and unsuccessfully called for new leadership, said Friday that he still hoped someone would emerge to take on Boehner.

“I’m surprised and disappointed that we haven’t had more competition,” he said, adding that he didn’t think the shuffling of leadership posts under Boehner would be enough.

“Let’s face it, when you’re this deep in the minority, who is whip matters less. It’s Minority Leader that matters more, and to have the same face there, I don’t think serves us well. We’re still holding out hope that somebody like Paul Ryan will change his mind,” Flake said.

If a strong challenger doesn’t emerge, Flake said Boehner should make it clear that there will be major changes in how the party operates. “I can’t imagine he’s going to say, ‘We’re going to keep the same ranking members, we’re going to go on merrily as before and we’re going to lose another 20 seats.’”