House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), joined by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), holds a news conference to announce her Democratic leadership team. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
On Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi was “unanimously” (there was no actual vote) reelected as the leader of House Democrats. On Wednesday, she lost a proxy fight that reveals the level of discontent that exists toward her within the caucus she was elected to lead.
At issue was the ranking minority member slot — yes, weirdly, this matters a lot — on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The job was open due to the retirement of California Rep. Henry Waxman. Pelosi’s preferred candidate to succeed Waxman was fellow California Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), but New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone was more senior than Eshoo and wanted the job. He won — 100 to 90 — in what veteran congressional observers cast as a major setback for the minority leader and a sign of cracks in her legendarily unified front.
Here’s why. Pelosi threw the weight of her organization inside the House behind Eshoo. (Eshoo doesn’t even have a chief of staff based full time in Washington.) Pelosi functioned as the campaign manager of Eshoo’s bid, publicly and privately. ”It’s about the future,” Pelosi told The Post earlier this week about her support for Eshoo. “And secondly, it’s about California, too.” Earlier in the fall, Pelosi sent a letter to her colleagues that claimed Eshoo had 105 solid commitments, more than enough to win.
And yet, Eshoo still lost — a rebuke to Pelosi that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. (No matter what you think of Pelosi, it’s hard to argue that her ability to keep her people in line has been absolutely remarkable.) The rebuke came less than 24 hours after comedian Jon Stewart blasted Pelosi and insisted it was time for her to step aside, and amid continued grumbling from some within the House Democratic caucus about her decision to stay put despite the party’s losses in the midterm elections.
The Energy and Commerce vote was a private one and, therefore, there is no actual vote to scan through in hopes of understanding who rebelled against Pelosi and why. Here’s what we do know. As WaPo’s Karen Tumulty noted, Pallone’s support included a large bloc of Congressional Black Caucus members who are big believers in the seniority system. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), a longtime rival to Pelosi, was for Pallone, as were a number of recently elected members who sit in swing districts, which Pelosi does not. (President Obama won Pelosi’s district with 84 percent in 2012.)
To be clear: Standing up to Pelosi on a proxy vote for ranking member on Energy and Commerce isn’t the same thing as saying it’s time for her to go or challenging her hold on the top spot. Not one of the 100 members who voted against her Wednesday were willing to stand up to her re-ascension to the top job 24 hours earlier. (Florida Rep.-elect Gwen Graham insisted that she hadn’t actually supported Pelosi, but whatever.) And, some of those who voted against Pelosi’s choice — the CBC in particular — did so less out of animosity toward her and more out of an adherence to other principles.
But the group that may hold the keys to the caucus’s future — composed primarily of the members elected in the last few election cycles — is young and ambitious, and not necessarily willing to watch as Pelosi dictates her will to the caucus nor wait until she decides it’s time to leave to make some noise about the way she runs things. People like Reps. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), Cheri Bustos (Ill.), Patrick Murphy (Fla.) and Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) are considered part of that group by longtime congressional watchers.
What’s fascinating about that group is that their approach stands in direct contrast to the longtime Pelosi heirs-in-waiting, who have born her decisions to come back time and again as the top Democrat in silence. That group includes people like Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), both of whom are part of a small group of Democratic members seen as having the policy and political chops to fill the void once Pelosi leaves.
The 114th Congress will convene with Democrats at their lowest ebb — in terms of raw number of seats held — since World War II. It’s in moments like that where tiny cracks turn into gaping chasms as ambition and ego pour out. Watch to see whether Pelosi — as she has done so many times before — can keep the warring factions at bay for just a little longer.