Pelosi quashes uprising

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants won reelection as House Democratic leaders on Wednesday, beating back an uprising that exposed deep divisions within the party rank-and-file.

Members of the caucus voted overwhelmingly to make Pelosi (Calif.) minority leader, brushing aside a challenge by Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog who said Pelosi’s toxic public image is a liability to Democrats’ efforts to retake the House majority in 2012.

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The tally was 150-43.

In contentious closed-door elections that dragged on nearly for six hours, the caucus also elected Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn (S.C.) and John Larson (Conn.) to top leadership posts, meaning House Democrats will be led by the same team that oversaw the loss of more than 60 seats in the midterms.

 The leadership slate won reelection despite a push by more than a third of the caucus to delay the vote until Dec. 8. Leaders of that effort said Democrats needed more time to digest the historic election defeat and consider whether they wanted to change leadership. By a vote of 129-68, the caucus rejected the proposal to postpone the elections.

After her victory, Pelosi forcefully shot down the notion that, by remaining leader, she was ignoring a message for change from the voters.

“The message we received from the American people was that they want a job — they want jobs,” the Speaker said. “Nine-and-a-half percent unemployment is a very tough screen to get through with any other message.”

She also rejected the argument that her low approval ratings brought down Democrats in 2010.

“Well, let me put that in perspective,” Pelosi said. “How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?” she asked, referring to the Republican campaign to vilify her in television ads.

At that point, both Larson and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the reelected vice chairman of the caucus, stepped in to defend her and her support among Democratic lawmakers. “They know her heart, and that was felt today, the heartfelt feeling of this caucus behind this great Speaker,” Larson said.

Despite Wednesday’s victory, Pelosi’s internal battles aren’t over. The caucus will debate on Thursday whether to adopt rule changes sought by centrists Blue Dogs that would significantly rein in her power as leader.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who formally nominated Pelosi during Wednesday’s proceedings, trumpeted Pelosi’s fundraising prowess, noting she used most of the money to support other members even as conservative groups were spending millions of dollars attacking her.

“She wouldn’t spend it for herself because she was spending it for us,” Doyle said, according to an aide in the room. “How can we fold on her when she’s not folding on us?”

GOP leaders were quick to criticize Democrats for reelecting Pelosi, accusing the party of being tone-deaf to the message delivered by voters Nov. 2.

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement saying Democrats “chose to ignore the elections” and empower leaders who will continue “the same reckless, job-killing agenda that was just overwhelmingly rejected.”

Shuler said afterward he never expected to win the leadership contest but simply wanted to remind Democratic leaders that centrists, despite their diminished numbers, still deserve a “seat at the table.”

“It wasn’t about winning the race,” Shuler told reporters. “It was about having a voice in our caucus.”

Appearing with Reps. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who formally nominated Shuler for the post, Shuler said “there was a lot of unrest in the room” surrounding the votes.

Matheson, Ross and Kissell all said they would remain Democrats, but support Shuler for Speaker on the House floor.

“I think the 68 votes is a substantial message, and I’m pleased with the results,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a leader of the effort, said, referring to the final tally on delaying the elections.

Others, however, said the caucus’s actions reflected a more troubling disconnect between Democratic leaders and the electorate.

“I consider myself one of Nancy Pelosi’s closest friends in Congress. I think we missed an opportunity today to send a signal to America that we understand what happened in this past election,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who wanted the elections pushed back.

He said he was not voting against the leadership as much as in favor of more deliberations about the Democratic strategy and message, which he sharply criticized.

“I think we put the proper pressure and a positive pressure on the Speaker,” he said.

Also Wednesday, the caucus elected Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), as ranking member of the Budget Committee. Pelosi had appointed Van Hollen as assistant to the Speaker in the 111th Congress, and her office said he would remain in the leadership team next year as a liaison to the Budget Committee.

The votes that Democrats delayed were for several amendments to caucus rules that would, in essence, repeal the leader’s ability to make unilateral appointments to some posts, including the DCCC chairman.

Proposed by members of the Blue Dogs, the changes are designed to decentralize power by allowing lawmakers outside of the Speaker’s inner circle to vie for those positions. Led by Matheson, those members want two additional vice-chairman posts added to the leadership.

Those votes are now scheduled for Thursday.

Outside the caucus room, Pelosi supporters took shots at Shuler, questioning his qualifications for the leadership post.

“The accomplishments of the last two years have been achieved without Heath’s vote,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) told reporters. “And now he wants to be leader?”

Some senior Democrats said that all the hype — not to mention controversy — over the leadership races is irrelevant outside the Washington Beltway, where voters care more about policy than intra-party popularity contests.

“Who the minority leader is or isn’t — or who the whip is or isn’t — is very much a Washington-insider issue,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said. “The general public cares about public policy, not personality.”

Asked if Pelosi’s abysmal approval ratings among independents pose a problem for the party looking ahead to 2012, Frank said they don’t, “because she’s not running for president.”

“You people are focused on this; the voters aren’t,” he said, referring to the media. “The general public is much more focused on substance.”

Frank asserted that Pelosi had “virtually nothing” to do with the poor election outcome for Democrats.

“Going forward,” he said, “we will be judged on what the public policies are.”

The first version of this article was posted at 11:42 a.m. and was last updated at 8:25 p.m.