By Mike Lillis and Bob Cusack - 05/17/12 09:00 AM EDT
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) is considering a bid to be Speaker of the House or majority leader if the Democrats win the November election.
He would almost certainly not run against Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) if she decided to stay, but he hints strongly that he is ready for a showdown with Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.).
The highest-ranking African-American in Congress then detailed what could be his argument for a promotion: He has paid his dues, both literally and figuratively.
“The people who hold these leadership positions in the palms of their hands — that’s our caucus — they hold these positions,” he said. “I think the extent to which I demonstrate that I’m deserving will determine whether or not I continue.”
Clyburn was quick to tout his credentials as a veteran dealmaker with a history of both getting things done and sacrificing for the party when need be. He related an episode early in his Capitol Hill tenure, for instance, when he stepped off the powerful Appropriations Committee to make room for a Republican who was promised a seat on the panel if he switched parties.
“I believe that every member will tell you that I paid significant dues, and I never, ever stepped on anybody along the way,” he said. “People may say they’ll put the interest of the caucus before them. But I have demonstrated it.”
He also noted that he paid his full cycle dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As the No. 3 Democrat, Clyburn’s dues level is set at $600,000, which he met in January.
Hoyer, for his part, is not ceding any ground.
“Mr. Hoyer is focused on taking back the House and being the majority leader,” spokeswoman Katie Grant said Wednesday in an email.
Clyburn is not expected to challenge Pelosi, who has a firm grip on her caucus.
Yet there is widespread speculation that this Congress will be Pelosi’s last. Alexandra Pelosi, the lawmaker’s daughter, said in December 2011 that her mother wants to retire. Pelosi’s office has since downplayed those remarks.
As in every election cycle, the fate of the leaders hinges largely on what happens at the polls. Pelosi, who controlled the Speaker’s gavel from 2007 to 2011, has not yet played her hand, saying she’s focused only on returning the Democrats to the majority.
“Let me just be clear: I’ve never pushed to become Speaker. I push for the Democrats to win,” she said last week. “Whatever happens after that is incidental.”
Clyburn said Democrats have “a fighting chance” of taking back the majority this fall.
Pressed on whether he will look to move up the leadership hierarchy should the GOP retain the House, Clyburn hedged a bit. He said it would depend on the election outcome and whether members of the Democratic Caucus believe leadership lawmakers did a good job in attempting to win back the lower chamber.
Rank-and-file Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting that they are focused on November, not potential leadership match-ups in the lame-duck session.
“There will be a lot of ferment [after the elections],” the Democrat added. “Do we win? Do we just barely lose? Do we lose seats? All of those will play into members’ assessment of what to do [with leadership], if anything.”
In Clyburn’s Capitol Hill office, there is a framed quotation of James Bryant Conant’s phrase: “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”
Clyburn has long been a team player for House Democrats, but he isn’t afraid to stick his neck out.
He said this week that President Obama should have gone further on same-sex marriage, calling for a “national policy” on the controversial issue.
Following the 2006 elections, he was poised to take on then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) for the House majority-whip post. Emanuel subsequently opted not to challenge the 10-term lawmaker.
Clyburn and Hoyer temporarily locked horns for the minority-whip slot in the wake of the 2010 elections. Pelosi ultimately defused the situation by carving out a new leadership slot for Clyburn, allowing him to retain his No. 3 position in the caucus.
Some younger Democrats in the House have privately grumbled about their lack of opportunity to join the leadership team. Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are all over 70 years of age.
With a laugh, Clyburn noted he is the youngest of the leadership trio, adding that he doesn’t feel pressure from younger members of the caucus to step aside.