It’s Looking Like Speaker or Nothing for Pelosi

Posted October 25, 2010 at 6:20pm

Democrats on Capitol Hill and K Street are increasingly convinced that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have little interest in being Minority Leader ‘ and may start preparing to leave Congress altogether ‘ if Republicans win the House a week from today.

Pelosi and her allies adamantly refuse to entertain questions about a possible Democratic minority. But Democratic sources say they have a hard time imagining the 70-year-old, independently wealthy California Democrat would want to return to the less-powerful post that she held for four years before becoming Speaker in 2007, particularly after having spent the past four years driving the Congressional agenda.

Should Republicans sweep into power on Nov. 2, the pivotal question that some Democrats have begun contemplating is one of timing: Does Pelosi step aside immediately, or does she stick around for a few months as Minority Leader to help smooth the transition to her successor? Both scenarios assume Pelosi heads for the exits within a few weeks or months.

‘It’s pretty clear that what she does is just leave,’ said a former House leadership aide who now works downtown. The Democrat had no direct knowledge of Pelosi’s plans but predicted she would probably resign from Congress in fairly short order. ‘Once you’ve been Speaker of the House, why would she just want to be a Member of Congress?’

Pelosi’s predecessor, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), opted not to run for Minority Leader when Republicans lost the House in 2006; he resigned from Congress slightly more than a year later, on Nov. 26, 2007, after fading into obscurity.

But Pelosi’s backers think that while Republicans could get by without Hastert at the helm, Democrats would have a harder time functioning without Pelosi: They point to her hands-on leadership style and her near-unmatched fundraising ability.

Still, one Democratic lobbyist with ties to members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition said: ‘If the losses are as big as projected, I just don’t see how she hangs on. … She’s been a very active, very powerful Speaker, and I just have a hard time seeing her going back to being a rank-and-file Member.’

And no one thinks Pelosi has designs on the Senate or White House, unlike former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who kept his House seat for two years after having abandoned his leadership post, in large part because he was mounting a presidential bid.

Still, Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist and former top Gephardt aide, speculated that Pelosi still might do a short stint as a rank-and-file Member to figure out her next career move and line up a hometown successor.

‘It certainly puts less strain on your district … and also gives you some breathing room to go make some decisions on some long-term plans,’ Smith said.

The last Democratic Speaker to preside immediately in advance of a Republican takeover, Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), didn’t have to decide whether to stay in leadership: He was one of casualties of the 1994 GOP rout.

Pelosi won’t even discuss the possibility of Democrats losing the House or address questions about what she would do if they did. Democratic sources say that even privately Pelosi’s advisers will not entertain the subject.

Pressed last week in a television interview about what her role might be if the GOP takes the House, Pelosi disputed the premise of the question, telling PBS’ Charlie Rose that she and other Democrats were ‘moving forward with our eyes on the prize … and we’re not thinking in terms of what if. … I intend to win.’

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami echoed that sentiment Monday, saying, ‘The Speaker’s focus is on Democrats winning the election and retaining the majority, which we will.’

But the prevailing view among those outside Pelosi’s inner circle is that her tenure as Democratic leader would, by her own choice, be short-lived if her party ends up back in the minority.

One Democratic leadership aide predicted that Pelosi would stay on, perhaps for a few months at most, as Minority Leader ‘to make sure ‘ whoever takes over as leader ‘ that there’s a smooth transition to that person.’ The aide added that Pelosi ‘probably would prefer to leave on her timetable,’ rather than succumb to any immediate pressure to step aside in the wake of a Congressional power change.

The aide predicted Pelosi’s first step would be to consult her Caucus before deciding whether to serve as Minority Leader for any length of time.

Should she want to stay in leadership, Pelosi would likely have a lock on the post, even though a handful of Blue Dogs have said they would not support her again as Speaker. Among them is Rep. Gene Taylor, who ‘ like many of his colleagues ‘ has been trying to distance himself from Pelosi and other Democratic leaders this cycle. The Mississippi Democrat has said he would prefer Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) as Speaker in the 112th Congress, and in a Saturday article in the Biloxi Sun Herald, touted his vote for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as president.

Pelosi would have some time to decide what to do. The House is not slated to return until Nov. 15, and although Democratic leaders appear to be eyeing leadership elections later that week, aides say those could be delayed if needed.

Some Democrats caution that Pelosi’s approach hinges ‘ in the words of one Democratic lobbyist ‘ on whether ‘this is a wave or this is a tsunami.’ If Republicans seize a narrow majority, Pelosi could have more of an incentive to stay in leadership, perhaps in part to lay the groundwork for winning back the House in 2012.

If Democrats find themselves within striking distance of reclaiming the majority, ‘the Democratic Caucus may demand she stay put,’ the former House Democratic leadership staffer said.

But if Democrats suffer heavier losses, Members may turn to the Caucus’ No. 2, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), to unify them.

Although Hoyer is considered the most likely candidate to lead House Democrats if Pelosi bows out, he could face a challenge from one of the Caucus’ ambitious junior Members. While none has suggested any interest in the Minority Leader post, possible contenders could include Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Conference Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) or DCCC Vice Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), aides and strategists say.

‘There would probably be a handful of people who would take a look at it,’ the aide said. ‘It could turn into a free-for-all.’