By Mike Lillis and Alexander Bolton - 11/09/10 11:36 PM EST
The leadership race between Reps. James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer took a sharp turn Tuesday when Clyburn criticized his opponent’s tactics and said they were making other Democrats uncomfortable.
The comments are the first hint of criticism between Clyburn (S.C.) and Hoyer (Md.) as the two Democratic heavyweights vie for the No. 2 Democratic leadership spot in the next Congress. The contest was initiated after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she wanted to keep her position as party leader despite the Democrats’ trouncing in the midterm elections.
“This is not about playing the numbers game,” Clyburn told The Hill outside Washington’s Newseum when asked about his whip count . “This is about respecting and honoring the members of our caucus in such a way that they will be comfortable with the process.
“I don’t see how you maintain a comfort level for all of our members by rolling out these names. I don’t think it does the process any real good. I’ve never done it; I’m not going to do it.”
Despite Clyburn’s criticism, both camps were quick to dismiss the possibility of an emerging rift between the two Democrats, noting the cordial, if competitive, nature of the race so far.
“Hoyer has the greatest respect for Mr. Clyburn and is hopeful that they will both remain at the leadership table,” Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant said in an e-mail.
A member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying Hoyer “has gone out of his way” to assure CBC members of his “unbending support” for keeping Clyburn in leadership.
“He understands that it would be to his disadvantage to come across as trying to force [Clyburn out of leadership],” the lawmaker told The Hill in a phone interview. “He’s a master politician and he knows that he’d immediately have a problem with the 42 [CBC] members.”
The CBC officially endorsed Clyburn on Tuesday, with Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) saying the South Carolina Democrat has been “extremely effective” in bringing together “all corners of our caucus behind a unified agenda.”
Still, that doesn’t mean all CBC members are on board. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), for instance, has yet to weigh in on a favorite. Cummings’s office on Tuesday said only that “both Clyburn and Hoyer need to be at the leadership table.”
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a founding member of the CBC, also declined to pick sides this week, arguing that, in order not to polarize the party, leaders will have to reach a deal before the caucus votes.
“It’s not going to come to a vote,” Rangel told The New York Observer. “We can’t afford a vote.”
Clyburn, however, is still whipping up support with the idea that a vote is forthcoming, his office said Tuesday. The South Carolina Democrat hopped on a plane home Tuesday afternoon without agreeing to any leadership deals, a spokesman added.
Pelosi, meanwhile, has remained silent about her preferences for the No. 2 spot. The Speaker has “had conversations” with both Hoyer and Clyburn this week, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said, “and she wants them both in leadership.”
Since Pelosi’s Friday announcement, Hoyer’s office has been proactive in releasing the names of those members lining up behind the 71-year-old Maryland Democrat.
Clyburn’s office, meanwhile, has been less aggressive, though his aides have highlighted the public support of about a dozen members.
An informal whip count has Hoyer supporters outnumbering Clyburn backers by about four to one.
Clyburn noted Tuesday that he’s hardly new to leadership contests, having been elected vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus after the 2002 elections. Early vote counts, he said, have little to do with final outcomes.
“I’ve done this all of my life and I’m now 70 years old, [and] I decided not to play the numbers game,” Clyburn said of his leadership contest eight years ago. “I remember seeing all these numbers about who has what support. I was in a three-person race and I won without a runoff and I didn’t issue one list. When [Rep.] John Larson [D-Conn.] ran for the [vice] chair of our caucus, he did not issue one name. He won.”
Clyburn also indicated that he met with both Pelosi and Hoyer on Monday, but wouldn’t provide details of those discussions.
“I never talk out of school,” he said.
There’s some speculation that leaders will forge a deal under which a new position is carved out for Clyburn, to battle appearances that he’s being demoted.
It’s a strategy that’s being endorsed by Rangel.
“To me it’s like musical chairs, where they just move the damn chair away,” Rangel told the Observer. “If I had my druthers, I’d just put another chair up there. What the hell?”
This story was posted at 2:45 p.m. and updated at 6:36 p.m.