Nancy Pelosi is leading the House Democratic caucus on borrowed time. With the 2014 midterm elections still looming months in the distance, speculation about a potential Pelosi resignation is mounting. On January 30, Josh Kraushaar of National Journal wrote that “as a new generation of Democrats are getting elected around her, she could very well be California’s next member of Congress to step aside.” The next day, John Bresnahan argued in Politico that “the fact that Pelosi has to take time to swat this kind of [retirement] speculation shows how bad things have gotten for House Democrats in the last few weeks.” There is weight to the concerns about the Minority Leader’s hold on her caucus; after being hurled from power in 2010, House Democrats saw moderate gains in 2012, but no return to the majority, and are facing another round of heavy losses in 2014. It would be sheer naiveté to think that control of the House will switch parties this fall, even more so to believe that Nancy Pelosi will one day swing the Speaker’s gavel again. The last Speaker of the House to serve nonconsecutive terms was the legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas, in the late 1950s. However, Democrats traditionally elect their minority leader in the House to serve as Speaker when they gain the majority. One day, Democrats will again control the House of Representatives, but without Nancy Pelosi at the helm. Here is the question: what Democrat will seize the throne?
First, one must examine the possibility of a revolt within the Democratic Caucus if Pelosi does not step aside. From where would this challenge likely come? Two words: Steny Hoyer. A congressman from Maryland, Hoyer has served as the Minority Whip in the House, and his relationship with Pelosi is strained at best, sour at worst. Just last month, Emma Dumain of Roll Call wrote the following about a new battle between the Leader and the Whip:
“The long-running leadership rivalry between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer is flaring anew as the two Democrats take different sides in the fight over who will be the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.”
At age 74, Hoyer probably knows that his chances of dethroning Pelosi in order to one day become Speaker of the House diminish with every passing day. Therefore, if the Democrats suffer worse-than-expected losses in November, Steny Hoyer might mount a leadership challenge in the Democratic Caucus. And that if Pelosi decides to step aside voluntarily? In October 2012, John Brenahan wrote in Politico that “if Pelosi does step aside, Hoyer is unlikely to face a challenge from the progressive wing of the Democratic Caucus.” That was in 2012. Now, Steny Hoyer might face an uphill battle in his quest for the top spot in the caucus. That battle will be instigated by another congressman from Maryland: Chris Van Hollen.
In February 2013, Robert Draper wrote an article about Mr. Van Hollen in New Republic entitled “The Future Mr. Speaker.” In it, Draper argued the following about the Maryland congressman’s credibility on Capitol Hill:
“Van Hollen has emerged as the Democrats’ leading budgetary strategist on Capitol Hill. He understands the thinking of his friendly Republican adversary on the House Budget Committee, Chairman Paul Ryan, better than anyone…”
Rep. Van Hollen is a more youthful alternative to the aging Steny Hoyer, and the Democratic Caucus would certainly take this into consideration if given the opportunity to elect a new leader. Van Hollen would also be a worthy opponent of Rep. Paul Ryan, should the Republican Party choose to elevate the Wisconsin congressman to a higher position of power any time soon.
In many ways, the future of the Democratic Caucus depends upon Nancy Pelosi. She could choose to stay on as Minority Leader, and delay a potential Hoyer-Van Hollen battle for her position. If she chooses to retire voluntarily, she could potentially endorse Van Hollen, and ensure that her old rival, Hoyer, does not reach the top spot in the caucus.
In conclusion, with the midterm elections drawing nearer and nearer, and with Democratic election losses appearing certain, some in the Democratic Caucus are coveting their leader’s position. They’re watching the throne.