Caucus Faces Power Struggle

Posted February 24, 2009 at 6:35pm

For weeks after Rahm Emanuel left Congress to become President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, his prized hideaway on the first floor of the Capitol remained empty.

By rights, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who in November cruised unchallenged to Emanuel’s fourth-ranking leadership post as the Democratic Caucus chairman, had a strong claim to the office.

But so did Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who followed Emanuel’s majority-making turn at the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with a successful cycle of his own. Van Hollen then agreed to another term leading the committee, along with a new role as Assistant to the Speaker, which included Emanuel’s portfolio of looking after new Members.

Senior Democratic sources said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ultimately chose to bequeath the prized suite, across the hall from the offices of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), to Larson, who moved in last month. And Van Hollen last week moved into a basement space vacated by Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who had already moved into a new hideaway upstairs.

The musical chairs played out quietly but points to a lingering tension between the camps of the two rising House Democrats as they angle for elbowroom at a reshuffled leadership table. And it highlights an ongoing challenge for the broader Caucus: how to navigate in a post-Rahm world now that Democrats can’t count on the regular counsel of the politically savvy Chicagoan.

After engineering his party’s return to the majority in 2006, Emanuel agreed to serve as Caucus chairman instead of challenging Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) for the No. 3 whip job. In exchange, Pelosi beefed up the post’s traditional responsibilities. She promised messaging and policy duties, and she handed Emanuel the job of nurturing freshman and sophomore lawmakers, called “Member services,” which had been handled out of the DCCC.

In the wake of Emanuel’s exit for the White House shortly after the Nov. 4 elections, both Van Hollen and Larson were eyeing a run for his plum spot in the leadership lineup.

As with the hideaway, both lawmakers had solid arguments to make: Larson had paid his dues and taken his lumps. After the Democratic return to the majority, he effectively acceded to a demotion in order to let Emanuel take his place in the hierarchy. With Emanuel’s move to the White House, Larson was primed to reclaim his spot.

Van Hollen, meanwhile, had just spent a bruising two years helping Democrats add some comfortable padding to their majority. Though tapped to effectively play defense, Van Hollen’s tight management of the DCCC in the 2008 cycle — and the continued implosion of the Republican Party — allowed House Democrats to pick up 21 seats. Following the logic that put Emanuel in the job, Van Hollen began making calls the day after the election to start locking up support —while making publicly clear he had no interest in another two-year stint at the DCCC.

But Pelosi, hoping to avoid another bloody leadership fight, eventually prevailed on Van Hollen to stay on at the committee by handing him the Speaker’s assistant job. To sweeten the deal, she added to that post the member services profile that had been Emanuel’s.

The tweak meant Larson was losing the budget for three staffers to Van Hollen. Along with Becerra, the newly elected Caucus vice chairman, Larson met with the Speaker to voice his disappointment, sources familiar with the meeting said.

Several sources close to the leaders said both men are now focused on settling into their respective roles, and to the extent that any tension exists, it has been muted in recent weeks.

Spokesmen for both lawmakers likewise dismissed any suggestion of friction. “Sounds like a few people with a lot of time on their hands to gossip and manufacture an issue with no basis in reality,” Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell said. “Mr. Van Hollen has the utmost respect for Mr. Larson and his leadership of the Democratic Caucus. They work closely together, are friends and share a commitment to moving the Caucus and America forward.”

And Larson spokeswoman Emily Barocas said the two are “getting along incredibly well and figuring out ways to work together for the benefit of the Caucus.” She said Larson is “happy to have Mr. Van Hollen’s help” with newer vulnerable Members so he can focus on the rest of the Caucus.

But with Van Hollen now tasked with overseeing the fortunes of 78 lawmakers — 30 percent of the Caucus — his priorities could bump up against Larson’s.

The possibility bore out earlier this month at the House Democrats’ annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., when Van Hollen axed the participation of freshman lawmakers in a press roundtable that Larson was organizing, according to senior Democratic aides. The reason: Van Hollen’s office felt there was no upside for newly minted Members in facing potentially tough questions from the press.

Larson’s office has a different take, saying the Caucus chairman canceled the event because of scheduling conflicts.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of overlap,” said one Democratic lawmaker, a Larson confidante. “This is part of the shuffling of the deck, and I think that’s normal.”

By all accounts, Larson continues to enjoy a deep well of goodwill in the Caucus. “A Northern good ole’ boy,” as one aide to a Southern Democrat called him, Larson gets plaudits for being what several described as a “Member’s Member.”

“Most Members know John’s first agenda is the Members — not his own professional advancement,” one Democratic lawmaker said. The media “are looking for who grabs a microphone first. That’s not what most of us are looking for in a Caucus chair.”

Larson has made a conscious effort to refashion his post as a sounding board for the rank and file, instituting weekly meetings with leaders of the various Caucus groups.

But Larson has come into criticism from some in leadership who say he is too quick to heap praise on Pelosi and lacks the strategic acumen of the man that he has replaced.

Van Hollen, likewise, has apparently yet to demonstrate to at least one pivotal segment of the Caucus that he has the chops to fill Emanuel’s shoes. Sources close to the Blue Dog Coalition, the faction of deficit hawks from mostly Southern districts, said the group has been sweating Emanuel’s exit, fearing that they now have only one champion in leadership in Hoyer.

The group counts 15 freshman and sophomore Members in its ranks, and since the November elections, talk has persisted that they need to rely on their own leadership to help shepherd their most vulnerable. Larson acknowledged he was stepping into a large shadow back in mid-November, before he had officially secured Emanuel’s post.

“How do you replace Rahm Emanuel?” he said in an interview with C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.” “The short answer is you don’t. We have completely different styles. … My role, as I see it, is to shine the spotlight on the many talents we have in our Caucus.”