Dems vent to leaders as losses set in

House Democrats held a marathon venting session Tuesday as they tried to come to grips with a devastating midterm election that swept their caucus out of power.

The gathering was the first for the entire caucus since the election, and lawmakers described a solemn mood under which defeated members stood up, one by one, and delivered farewell speeches to their colleagues.

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The meeting, which began at noon, stretched on for hours after the caucus passed a resolution allowing first defeated members and then returning lawmakers to address their colleagues for five minutes apiece. Staffers were kicked out of the meeting.

 While many Democrats offered kind words, thanks and support for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), defeated Reps. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Travis Childers (D-Miss.) and Bill Foster (Ill.) called for new leadership, lawmakers said.

Boyd told The Hill that leaving Pelosi as the public face of the caucus would undermine candidate recruitment efforts in 2012.

“I don’t know how you recruit for some of these seats,” said Boyd. “How are you going to recruit somebody to run — a moderate, Blue Dog Democrat — to run down there? Can’t do it.”

Democrats are girding for an internal showdown on Wednesday as they meet for caucus elections over the objections of a growing number of lawmakers who want them postponed. Pelosi surprised many Democrats two weeks ago when she announced she would seek to stay on as the caucus leader.

Two Democrats, Reps. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) and Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), plan to call for a secret-ballot vote on their proposal to push the leadership elections into December, a scenario that would give opponents of Pelosi more time to rally support for ousting her from the party leadership.

Lawmakers described a tense meeting where members offered candid views of why they believed their party had lost at least 60 seats and their majority just two years after a historic presidential election where everything seemed to be going in the Democratic Party’s direction.

“People are being very forthright about what went right and what went wrong, how they feel about their colleagues,” Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) said.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) called the outpouring “cathartic.”

The caucus gathering was one of several meetings planned for this week where House Democrats are airing their frustrations with the party message, strategy and leadership. Pelosi is trying to hold onto power despite the Democratic defeat, arguing that the election results were a reflection of an ailing economy and not her own low standing with the public.

While the liberal Speaker retains broad support within a smaller and more left-leaning caucus, a smattering of lawmakers from both sides of the ideological spectrum have said she should step aside. The conservative dissidents are now led by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who confirmed on Tuesday that he would challenge her for minority leader.

Shuler reiterated that he did not have the votes to win the race, but he said his leadership bid was not a protest campaign. “It’s not sending a message, it’s standing up for what you truly believe in,” Shuler said. “This is about we have a leadership that lost the most significant votes in almost a century. That’s what it’s really about, is getting that changed.

 “In the NFL,” the former Washington Redskins quarterback added, “if you lost significantly, you were replaced.”

 Shuler, who was first elected in 2006, said he was not actively collecting votes and did not know how much support he had. While only a handful of Pelosi foes have told The Hill they would back Shuler, one Blue Dog Democrat said Shuler could expect a minimum of 30 votes in the caucus election. Nearly 100 would be needed to win.

As Shuler launched his own quixotic campaign, DeFazio and Kaptur stepped up their push to delay Wednesday’s leadership elections until after the Thanksgiving recess.

DeFazio said Wednesday that 19 Democrats had signed on to a letter asking for a postponement and that he would ask for a vote at the outset of Wednesday’s leadership election meeting.

That effort could gain support from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had lingering questions over a deal brokered by Pelosi to create a new elected leadership position for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who accepted the post to avoid forcing the caucus to vote between him and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for minority whip.

The CBC was scheduled to meet with Pelosi late Tuesday.

Still, other Democrats said the caucus should go ahead with the leadership elections before the Thanksgiving recess. “Just go do it,” Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.

Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said a large majority of Democrats still think Pelosi is best suited for the job.

“Most members, by far, suggested she should run,” Andrews told reporters. “I think she’ll be successful [Wednesday]. There’s a broad consensus ... that she will bring us back.”

Asked if Pelosi’s unpopularity in certain parts of the country could harm the party in 2012, Andrews dismissed the criticisms as an inevitable consequence of Pelosi’s effectiveness as a Speaker.

“Of course she’s going to be vilified,” he said, “because she got things done.”

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said much of the discussion focused on how, looking forward, Democrats could sell their brand of legislating to voters who soundly rejected it in 2010.

“The talk in there is how to sell our message,” Ackerman said as the meeting neared its sixth hour. “We didn’t market it. People had no clue.”

The legislation passed by Democrats was “great,” Ackerman said, but the party simply “didn’t take credit” for it.

“It was easy to pin the tail on Nancy,” he said.

Sean J. Miller and Mike Lillis contributed to this article.