Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 | 4:21 p.m.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi was handily re-elected to the Democratic Party’s top House post today, but the way it happened exposed some deep rifts in her caucus.
Conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat Heath Shuler made good on a threat to challenge the sitting speaker if she ran for the job of minority leader next year, motivated by widespread frustrations that the GOP’s successful pillorying of Pelosi to win midterms had made the leader too tainted to be the face of House Democrats any longer.
That set off not only a challenge from Shuler, but also a modest protest from a much larger band of House members, including many Pelosi supporters, to delay the election until after Thanksgiving.
Sixty-eight members voted to hold off on electing a new leader.
“We wanted to send a signal to Americans that we understand what happened,” said New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, who was one of the House members leading the call to delay the vote by two weeks. “I think we’ve put positive pressure on the speaker and the rest of the leadership team.”
While Pascrell and his partners didn’t come right out and say it, there appeared to be a general frustration that by re-electing the same leaders, House Democrats simply weren’t responding to cataclysmic losses.
“The greatest failing in this Congress is that the House … enabled the White House, and the White House was not always right,” said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, who also called for a delay.
“Republicans did not win this election. The Democrats lost it,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio.
Pelosi’s approval ratings among independents, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, are at about 8 percent.
But Pelosi’s closest supporters downplayed the suggestion that Pelosi ought to personally take any of the heat for the Democrats’ failures – or step out of the limelight to give her party a fresh start.
“The general public is much more focused on substance,” said Barney Frank, a close ally of Pelosi’s.
But by her own comments, even Pelosi acknowledged that she had become a symbol for the opposition.
“How would your ratings be if $75 million was spent against you?” Pelosi said to a reporter asking her why she should retain her top position. “I’m an effective leader.”
With a final vote of 150 for Pelosi and 43 for Shuler, it would seem most agreed. At least among those choices.
“There’s only one game in town,” Rep. Shelley Berkley said, her reluctant resignation palpable as she explained why she planned to back the speaker in Wednesday’s vote. Berkley is the only Nevada representative who voted in the House Democrats’ elections – Dina Titus did not have a vote because she will not be part of the 112th Congress.
Berkley and Pelosi have a troubled history, Berkley having thrown her support behind present Majority Whip Steny Hoyer back when the Democrats took over leadership of the House after the 2006 elections. After the 2010 midterms, Hoyer was considered a shoo-in for the top minority post – before Pelosi declared her intention to run again.
Hoyer did not challenge Pelosi, and is retaining his position as the House’s No. 2 Democrat.
Berkley says given the choices, her vote for Pelosi was a necessity.
“I like Heath Shuler very much, but he is pro-Yucca Mountain and anti-gaming, and as the representative for Las Vegas I cannot in good conscience vote for that,” Berkley said. “We’ve had issues, but when it comes to Nevada, she’s been great. She’s anti-Yucca, and she’s pro-gaming.”
Berkley also said she didn’t support the delaying tactic.
“It was ridiculous, why forestall the inevitable?” she said. “We have to get organized … waiting two weeks doesn’t help us with anything.”
But conservative Democrats said the delay – and Shuler’s better-than-expected pull of 43 votes – were important to set the tone for the coming Congress.
“It wasn’t about winning,” Shuler said after the vote. “It was about having a voice in our caucus.”
The Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats were among the hardest hit during the 2010 midterm elections – and many blame the House’s liberal leadership for hanging them out to dry in swing districts.
Shuler and his sponsors said while they had no intention of switching parties, they hoped that the numbers – 43 for Shuler, when there are only about 20 Blue Dogs left in the Congress for next year – sends a hard message to Pelosi to change her leadership priorities. “It’s not just Blue Dogs,” Shuler said.
Speaker-to-be John Boehner was also officially declared the Republicans’ top House member for the 112th Congress on Wednesday. He was elected by a unanimous voiced vote.