By Russell Berman - 11/30/11 10:15 AM EST
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.
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 Boehner (Ohio) is 62, but three “Young Guns” in their 40s — Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) — have all risen to senior posts.
Among House Democrats, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), John Larson (Conn.), Xavier Becerra (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.”