Old guard fades from Dem ranks

Slowly but surely, the old guard of the House Democratic Caucus is fading.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), with his announcement Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2012, joins a growing list of senior Democrats who have retired or lost races in the last two years.

The departures rob the party of decades in accumulated legislative experience, but they also provide openings for younger House Democrats who have seen their path to leadership positions and top committee slots blocked by a cadre of Democratic elders in their 70s and 80s.

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Democrats determine their committee chairmen largely by seniority, and the top three members of their leadership team, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), are all over 70.

In the 2010 elections, committee chairmen John Spratt (S.C.) and Ike Skelton (Mo.) lost reelection bids. Appropriations chief David Obey (Wis.) retired in the face of a tough campaign. The three had collectively served more than a century in Congress.

Since the start of the year, four House Democrats who have served more than 20 years have announced their retirements: Reps. Dale Kildee (Mich.), John Olver (Mass.), Jerry Costello (Ill.) and Frank.

Top Democrats downplay the extent to which the retirements of the last two years represent a changing of the guard for the party.

“There’s no great generational change going on now. It’s part of the constant flow,” Frank told reporters.

Retirements of veteran legislators often follow the loss of a congressional majority. Many Republicans called it quits after the GOP lost the House in 2006, and the No. 2 House Democrat, Hoyer, noted on Tuesday that the number of retirements this year is well below the number of Democrats who dropped reelection bids after the party last lost its majority, in 1994.

Reps. John Dingell (Mich.), 85, John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), 82, Charles Rangel (N.Y.), 81, and Alcee Hastings (Fla.), 75, are among senior Democrats who are on retirement watch, although they have all indicated they plan to run again. Frank said earlier this year he would run again, but changed his mind after redistricting dramatically reshaped his constituency.

The trio of Democrats at the top, however, have shown no sign of quitting. Pelosi, 71, has been raising money at a rapid pace — more than $26 million so far for Democrats nationwide — and has deflected questions about whether she wants to become Speaker again in 2013 if Democrats fulfill their goal of winning back the House. Those questions are likely only to grow louder as the election nears. Republicans have signaled they will try once again to make Pelosi a national target, as they did, successfully, in 2010.

Hoyer, 72, said he would run again in 2012.

“I filed yesterday [for reelection], so I am committed to running again,” the Maryland Democrat said Tuesday. “When I don’t like this job, I’ll get out. I still like the job.”

Hoyer bristled at the suggestion that the three top Democrats were all senior citizens and that younger members might eventually want to push them aside. “Be careful, now,” he joked to a reporter several decades his junior. “We’re 55 million strong, and we’ll get you!”

An aide to Clyburn said the 71-year-old “takes every election one at a time and he has every intention of running in 2012.”

While Democrats say the retirements stem from a variety of factors, Republicans argue they signal a lack of confidence that the party can win back the House.

“It must be painful for Steny Hoyer to keep a straight face while he cheerleads for Nancy Pelosi’s campaign to become Speaker again,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Apparently the decades he has spent in Washington have blinded him from the reality that House Democrats are choosing to abandon ship rather than face another round of punishment from voters in 2012.”

House Republicans have a bit more age diversity in their upper ranks. Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerZeal, this time from the center Juan Williams: The GOP's deal with the devil Hillicon Valley: Trump hits China with massive tech tariffs | Facebook meets with GOP leaders over bias allegations | Judge sends Manafort to jail ahead of trial | AT&T completes Time Warner purchase MORE (Ohio) is 62, but three “Young Guns” in their 40s — Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election Scalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement MORE (Va.), Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump vows to stand with House GOP '1,000 percent' on immigration Heckler yells ‘Mr. President, f--- you’ as Trump arrives at Capitol Hoyer: GOP centrists 'sold out' Dreamers MORE (Wis.) — have all risen to senior posts.

Among House Democrats, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), John Larson (Conn.), Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraColorado joins states adopting stricter vehicle emissions standard Overnight Energy: New controversies cap rough week for Pruitt | Trump 'not happy about certain things' with Pruitt | EPA backtracks on suspending pesticide rule EPA backpedals on suspending pesticide rule following lawsuit MORE (Calif.) and Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) are some members who would likely want to move up the ladder once Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn step aside — if not sooner.

“We have some extraordinarily able members who are [in] their third, fourth, fifth, sixth term, and I expect to see movement, but I expect that all the time, just as you saw it this time,” Hoyer said.

Democratic strategists say that in a presidential campaign year, the make-up of the party leadership team won’t matter much to voters. “It’s a little irrelevant now,” one strategist said.

And although some younger Democrats might grumble privately, there has been no public move for a shake-up within the party hierarchy in recent months.

“In an anti-incumbent environment, some new faces can have a positive benefit, but the existing leadership has been pretty successful so far,” another strategist said. “I don’t believe that there’d be a desire to change that course.”