By Russell Berman - 11/16/10 02:00 AM EST
When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) on Wednesday in a battle to lead the Democratic House minority, the question is not whether she will win, but how many votes she will lose.
Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, has threatened to challenge Pelosi for the party leadership since before the midterm elections. When Pelosi surprised Democrats by announcing her intent to remain as minority leader, Shuler initially stayed quiet. But on Sunday he repeated the pledge, saying that if Pelosi “doesn’t step aside, then I will challenge her.”
The North Carolina Democrat acknowledged that he lacks the “numbers to win” — a statement no member of the caucus would dispute. The Hill canvassed 18 offices of House Democrats who had publicly come out in opposition to Pelosi as minority leader, and just two — Reps. Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Jason Altmire (Pa.) — would commit to voting for Shuler.
Reps. Mike Quigley (Ill.) and Dan Boren (Okla.) declined to comment, while Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) repeated her call for the Democratic leadership elections to be postponed. Shuler’s office has not released an additional list of supporters.
In the two weeks since her party was routed out of the House majority, Pelosi has had to navigate tensions from across her caucus. She appeared to put out one fire over the weekend when she negotiated a resolution to a protracted battle for minority whip between Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).
With Hoyer leading in votes, Pelosi got Clyburn to accept a newly created position — “assistant leader” — that would keep him as the third-ranking Democrat in the caucus.
House liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus had campaigned to keep Clyburn in the leadership and chafed at the possibility that he would be pushed aside in favor of Hoyer, whose Blue Dog base was decimated in the midterm elections.
In a leadership meeting Monday, Pelosi characterized the “assistant leader” position created for Clyburn as essentially the same as the one she carved out for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), which was called “assistant to the Speaker,” according to a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the meeting. The key difference is that while Van Hollen’s post was the fifth-ranking position and was appointed, Clyburn will be No. 3 in the hierarchy, and his position will be an elected one.
“I’m happy about the fact that Mr. Clyburn is going to be the assistant leader,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said Thursday, “and I think from what I can see, it’s been worked out in a way that there should be a lot of unity.”
Pelosi has weathered challenges to her authority before, having defeated former Reps. Martin Frost (Texas) and Harold Ford (Tenn.) in previous leadership battles. While the Speaker is known for never taking a victory for granted, she has been dismissive of the dissent from Blue Dogs. In an interview with NPR last week, Pelosi said she had the “overwhelming support” of the Democratic Caucus, but not “the unanimous support.”
In addition to Shuler’s challenge, some Blue Dogs are pushing to change caucus rules to limit Pelosi’s power in designating heads of the steering committee and in appointing members to unelected leadership posts, as she did in Van Hollen’s case in 2008.
While Shuler’s bid is not likely to succeed, one Democratic aide said changes to the caucus rules may draw support from outside the Blue Dog Coalition, which will be considerably smaller in the 112th Congress.
Hayleigh Colombo and Kevin Cullum contributed reporting.