Who’s the new No. 4 Democrat? There may be a dispute

As Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) scrambles to shore up enough GOP support to become the next Speaker, House Democrats are grappling with a question swirling around their own leadership hierarchy next year: Who, in fact, is the No. 4 Democrat?

Most in the caucus presume that ranking falls to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who will assume the assistant leader spot in the next Congress. Clyburn is a powerful 30-year veteran lawmaker — and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus — who played an instrumental role in President Biden’s successful White House run. 

Yet Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), the incoming vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, is subtly questioning that hierarchy.

The vice chair has always been ranked just below the caucus chair, and because the caucus chair in the 118th Congress will be the No. 3 position, why wouldn’t the vice chair be No. 4?

The answer has been complicated by the Democrats’ soon-to-be minority status, which clipped a seat from their leadership roster, and by a confusing reshuffling of the pecking order that followed this year’s midterm elections.

The last time the Democrats were in the minority, the caucus chair seat was the No. 4 position, below minority leader, the Democratic whip and the assistant leader. But that hierarchy was altered following this year’s midterm elections, when the new caucus chair — Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.) — jumped up to the No. 3 spot. 

The promotion was designed to keep intact the incoming triumvirate of new leaders — Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Aguilar — to replace the longstanding Democratic team of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Clyburn, who have led the party for almost two decades.

While Pelosi and Hoyer have stepped out of leadership altogether, Clyburn ran successfully to keep a spot within the party brass as assistant leader — a position first created by Pelosi the last time Democrats lost their House majority, in 2010. 

Clyburn’s decision caught many Democrats by surprise, and it had a domino effect up and down the leadership ladder. 

Not only did it force Aguilar — who was initially eying the assistant leader spot — to seek the caucus chair position instead, it pushed Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who had already declared his candidacy for the caucus chairmanship, to seek a new position atop the Democrats’ messaging arm rather than take on Aguilar. 

In all the reshuffling, it was never explicitly stipulated what the hierarchy beneath Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar would be. Internal rules for the House Democratic caucus list no specific order for the various leadership positions, although it’s been widely held that the rankings of each seat are reflected in the order of the closed-door elections that decide them. 

That informal system was muddled this year, however, because Clyburn was not in Washington on the day that the other top leaders — Jeffries, Clark, Aguilar and Lieu — were elected. Clyburn returned the following day to secure his assistant leader spot uncontested, after Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) withdrew a last-minute challenge

The issue is a delicate one, and few members of the leadership team have wanted to touch it. 

Neither Clyburn’s office, nor Aguilar’s, responded to a request for comment on Friday.

Lieu also declined to comment in any detail. But when asked about the leadership hierarchy, he showed a reporter a picture of a press conference earlier this month featuring four members of the incoming leadership team: Jeffries, Clark, Aguilar and himself. 

“Here, see?” said Lieu, a military veteran who will be the highest-ranking Asian American in the next Congress. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

From a practical standpoint, the question of which lawmaker is No. 4 is essentially meaningless.

The duties and titles of neither the vice chair nor the assistant leader would change based upon their numerical ranking. And given the personalities constituting the incoming leadership team, rank-and-file Democrats said they don’t anticipate any internal frictions. 

But the rankings could be significant at some point down the line, some lawmakers said, if a vacancy emerges within the leadership team — or the House flips back to Democratic control — and questions of succession emerge. 

Majority Leader Hoyer, who is stepping out of leadership in the next Congress, said party leaders “ought to resolve” the leadership dispute. But he also made clear that it was a job for the incoming team, not the outgoing one. 

“Now that they are in these exalted positions, they are gonna have to make those decisions,” said a chuckling Hoyer.

Mychael Schnell contributed.

Tags Hakeem Jeffries Hakeem Jeffries james clyburn James Clyburn Joe Neguse Katherine Clark Katherine Clark Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Pete Aguilar Pete Aquilar Steny Hoyer Ted Lieu Ted Lieu

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