House Democrats face long odds at the polls and are bracing for depleted numbers next year, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) just yet.
Democrats on and off Capitol Hill expect Pelosi to remain as leader regardless of the outcome on Election Day.
But Democratic lawmakers, aides and strategists predict the unusual political dynamics in the House — where the GOP’s struggles to pass major legislation has given the minority Democrats rare sway — combined with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidential run, will be enough to keep the 74-year-old Pelosi in Washington at least through 2016.
“I think she stays for sure, and there are two reasons,” said a former House lawmaker who worked alongside Pelosi for years.
“One is the presidential cycle. … It’s very much a symbiotic proposition: Hillary’s chances and Nancy’s longevity,” the Democrat said. “The second reason [is] … that nothing major is going to happen in the next two years without House Democratic votes, and it puts her in a position of leveraging those votes to accomplish at least some of our agenda.”
Retiring Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) echoed that message, saying he’s seen no indication the hard-charging Pelosi is ready to call it quits.
“I hear the rumors, you know, that she’ll prevail in this election easily but then turn it over to her daughter. [But] she never told me that, and until she does I don’t have any real reason to believe it,” Moran, a 12-term congressman, said by phone. “I think we have to take Nancy at her word … that she’s committed to leading the Democratic caucus and electing a Democratic president in 2016.”
Asked about the Hillary Clinton factor, Moran didn’t hesitate.
“I think Nancy would love to be the first female Democratic Speaker to serve under the first female Democratic president,” he said.
Predicting Pelosi’s future has become something of a biennial parlor game inside the Beltway — with good reason. The San Francisco liberal has led the House Democrats since 2003, the longest stretch since the legendary Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) died in office in 1961.
In a decade as leader, she became the nation’s first female Speaker and helped to enact some of the most significant, if contentious, laws in generations — including the Wall Street bailout under President George W. Bush and healthcare reform under President Obama.
She’s also emerged as among the most effective fundraisers, having pulled in more than $400 million for the Democrats since taking over as House leader, according to a tally kept by her office. It’s a point that could also play a significant role in her decision, Democrats say.
“Nobody can raise money like she can … and she knows it, and she knows it matters for the party, and she cares deeply about that,” said a former Democratic leadership aide.
Pelosi surprised many political observers when she remained as leader following the 2010 elections, when Democrats were whomped into the minority, losing 63 seats. She defied similar predictions after the 2012 cycle, when she was said to be eyeing the door.
“With the chance to help the party and move forward into a presidential year, I think the odds are that she stays,” the former aide said. “But she was very close to choosing not to stay last cycle, and obviously, at some point the desire to spend time with family and friends and not deal with this stuff has gotta be strong, too.”
Fueling speculation about her intentions, several of her closest allies on Capitol Hill — including Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Moran – are retiring at the end of the year.
Pelosi’s office is coy when asked about her next steps.
“As the Leader has said, she’s not here on a shift, she’s here on a mission,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Pelosi, Tuesday in a brief email.
With top election handicappers predicting that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republicans are poised to pick up at least a handful of seats next month, few are predicting that Pelosi and the Democrats will have an easier time of it in the next Congress.
Still, Boehner has struggled to manage his unruly conservative-leaning conference, particularly on major bills, such as funding to keep the government open. In turn, that’s created a unique environment where GOP leaders have relied on Pelosi and the Democrats to move top priority legislation to the Senate. And the dynamic won’t change next year, Democrats say, even if the Republicans pick up their projected seats.
“I just don’t think that the Republican caucus is all going to join hands suddenly and sing Kumbaya,” Moran said. “They’re going to continue to be divided ideologically … so I think that Nancy will still have leverage.”
A Democratic leadership aide noted that the Republicans’ predicted gains — somewhere between five and 10 seats, by most counts — simply put them back where they were in the 112th Congress, when Boehner also struggled to pass controversial bills with only Republican votes.
“That’s exactly where he was and he couldn’t function then,” the aide said Tuesday.
Boehner’s office declined to comment for this story.
Democrats all agree that Pelosi can keep her post as long as she wants it.
“There is no chance of a challenge to her,” the aide said. “She is the Democratic leader until she chooses to not be.”
Still, her silence on the topic has also led to intrigue about what a post-Pelosi Democratic Party would look like. Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip who’s been Pelosi’s top lieutenant since challenging her unsuccessfully in 2002, is all but a shoe-in for leader if Pelosi were to step down.
“Steny is heir apparent as long as he wants it,” Moran said.
But the shuffle for the No. 2 spot could be more interesting. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), currently the third-ranking House Democrat and a close Pelosi ally, could find himself challenged by one among a younger crop of up-and-coming leaders, including Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), current Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
“The real fight would then be for the No. 2 slot,” said the former lawmaker, who compared it to the bitter Pelosi vs. Hoyer contest of 12 years ago. “That whip’s race was really a proxy fight for the Speakership.”
Pelosi, meanwhile, has made it no mystery that she’s rooting for Clinton to take the White House in 2016.
Appearing with the former secretary of State on Tuesday at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Pelosi said Clinton would be “one of the best prepared leaders” ever to become president.
“I am frequently introduced as the highest-ranking woman in political office in our country,” said Pelosi, who has made women’s empowerment issues a central focus of the Democrats’ legislative agenda. “I’d like to give up that title and elect a Democratic woman for president of the United States.”