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Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election

Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election
© Bonnie Cash

House Democrats on Wednesday will launch the delicate affair of choosing their leadership team in the next Congress, a routine exercise that’s taken on outsize significance following the party's battering at the polls two weeks ago. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Pelosi says she's giving Senate more time on Jan. 6 commission Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse passes political spending, climate change corporate disclosures bill House to vote Wednesday on making Juneteenth a federal holiday Democrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street MORE (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — are all running uncontested, setting the stage for the same power lineup to return for another term after 14 years together at the helm.

That grip on authority comes even despite some rank-and-file lobbying for a leadership facelift following a dismal election cycle when Democrats were forecasting large gains in the lower chamber, only to see their majority shrink instead.

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The fifth-ranking House Democrat, Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure MORE (D-N.Y.), is also facing no challenger, guaranteeing a second term in that post for the four-term Brooklyn native. A quartet of Democrats are running uncontested to become the four equal co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC): Reps. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics as study finds them prevalent Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover MORE (D-Mich.), Ted LieuTed W. LieuGaetz, under investigative cloud, questions FBI director Crenshaw trolled after asking for examples of 'woke ideology' in military Kinzinger slams Gaetz speech: 'This is why we need a January 6 commission' MORE (D-Calif.), Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightHouse Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection Garland emphasizes national security, civil rights in budget hearing House Democrats call for paid legal representation in immigration court MORE (D-Pa.) and Joe NeguseJoseph (Joe) NeguseHouse unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Overnight Health Care: House Democrats pressure Biden to expand Medicare | Intel community: Competing COVID-19 origin theories not 'more likely than the other' | WHO: Africa in 'urgent need' of 20 million second vaccine doses 70 percent of House Democrats pressure Biden to expand Medicare in American Families Plan MORE (D-Colo.).

Much less certain are a series of contests for a number of mid-ranking leadership positions — races that carry an unusual weight this year, since Pelosi has vowed to relinquish the gavel after the coming term. Her exodus is certain to spark a mad scramble to fill the void at the very top, and those just below would be best positioned to do so. 

With that in mind, the races for the lower-tiered leadership posts have taken on a special urgency this week, when Democrats will vote virtually as a public health precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Assistant Speaker 

Pelosi created the assistant Speaker position two years ago to reward the campaign chief, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), for helping to flip the House to Democratic control. But the new post is now here to stay.

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Two ambitious rising stars in the party — Reps. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkPelosi signals no further action against Omar Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Pelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement MORE (D-Mass.) and David CicillineDavid CicillineHillicon Valley: House targets tech giants with antitrust bills | Oversight chair presses JBS over payment to hackers | Trump spokesman to join tech company | YouTube suspends GOP senator House unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants On the Money: Tech giants face rising pressure from shareholder activists | House Democrats urge IRS to reverse Trump-era rule reducing donor disclosure | Sen. Warren, Jamie Dimon spar over overdraft fees at Senate hearing MORE (D-R.I.) — are vying to move up the leadership ladder and succeed Luján, who has proven that the assistant Speaker post can lead to higher office. Luján is heading to the Senate next year.

Clark, 57, the current Democratic Caucus vice chair, is a strong fundraiser who has been cultivating relationships with two critical voting blocs in the increasingly diverse caucus: women and minorities.

Her endorsements include former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.); Rep. Grace MengGrace MengHouse sends anti-Asian hate bill to Biden's desk Senate locks in hate crimes deal, setting up Thursday passage Jim Jordan, Val Demings get in shouting match about police during hearing MORE (D-N.Y.), a top Democratic National Committee official; Rep. Sylvia GarciaSylvia GarciaManchin meets with Texas lawmakers on voting rights Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip MORE (D-Texas), who was an impeachment manager; and Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanThe Memo: The pre-Trump 'normal' is gone for good Overnight Defense: Pentagon pitches 5B budget | Kamala Harris addresses US Naval Academy graduates Pentagon pitches 5B budget with cuts to older weapons MORE (D-Wis.), who is a co-chair of both the Progressive Caucus and Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

In touting Pocan’s support, Clark is taking direct aim at Cicilline, who as head of the DPCC is the only openly gay member on Pelosi’s leadership team. However, Cicilline, 59, won the endorsement of both the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT Caucus, which said the former Providence mayor “understands personally the damage that Donald Trump has done — especially to young LGBTQ Americans — through his words and deeds.”   

Some Democrats who aren’t taking sides in the race said it appeared Clark had a better whip operation and a strong case that another woman should serve at the top of the leadership team alongside Pelosi.

“The caucus is virtually half women so it’s tougher to say, ‘Nancy Pelosi, man, man, man, plus male head of the DCCC, and a male head of the caucus,” said one neutral House Democrat.

“There will be a lot of people who will want to make sure we have women at the top.”

Vice chair

With Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandSanders opposes Biden Interior nominee in procedural vote OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Judge halts Biden pause on new public lands oil leasing | Democrat presses Haaland on oil and gas review | EPA puts additional delay on Trump lead and copper in drinking water rule Democrat presses Haaland on oil and gas review MORE (D-N.M.) dropping out so she can be considered for Interior secretary, the race for Democratic Caucus vice chair now pits Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarPelosi signals no further action against Omar Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Pelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement MORE (D-Calif.) against Rep. Robin KellyRobin Lynne KellyLobbying world Pharmaceutical industry donated to two-thirds of Congress ahead of 2020 elections: analysis Republicans defy mask rules on House floor MORE (D-Ill.) 

For at least the past decade, there has been a Hispanic member of the Democratic leadership team: Then-Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraSanders 'delighted' DeSantis asked White House to import Canadian prescription drugs Feehery: It's for the children New Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing MORE (D-Calif.) had served as both caucus vice chair and chairman, while Luján was assistant Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair. Aguilar, 41, a past whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), is looking to continue that tradition.

Kelly, 64, has been making the case that the key members of Pelosi’s leadership team should include a woman of color. In the top seven jobs, there currently are no women of color, and Kelly could make history as the first Black woman elected to leadership.

Both candidates are touting a broad array of support in the caucus. Aguilar, a centrist, is being backed by both the CHC and the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, where Aguilar serves as whip. Among his supporters are two CBC members, Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, and A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinPolitical disenfranchisement is fueling environmental injustice White House names members of environmental justice panel Democrats reintroduce measure to address racial disparities in environmental impacts MORE (D-Va.); and progressive Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezDemocrat says he won't introduce resolution to censure Greene The Memo: Marjorie Taylor Greene exposes GOP establishment's lack of power House Democrat drafting resolution to censure Greene over Holocaust comments MORE (D-Calif.) Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeUS files first trade complaint against Mexico over tampered union vote at GM plant NC House ending remote voting for lawmakers House GOP campaign arm adds to target list MORE (D-Mich.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchShakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe On the Money: Tech giants face rising pressure from shareholder activists | House Democrats urge IRS to reverse Trump-era rule reducing donor disclosure | Sen. Warren, Jamie Dimon spar over overdraft fees at Senate hearing MORE (D-Vt.).

This is Aguilar’s second attempt at the vice chair post; the former mayor of Redlands, Calif., was defeated two years ago by Clark and has been working to shore up support ever since.

Kelly, a former state lawmaker, has secured support from a majority of her fellow CBC members, who constitute a huge voting bloc in the caucus, a source close to Kelly said. She rolled out a list of endorsements Tuesday night, including a trio of leading progressives, Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats shift tone on unemployment benefits Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure MORE (D-Wash.), Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaDemocrats shift tone on unemployment benefits Khanna outlines how progressives will push in climate infrastructure proposal Fresh hurdles push timeline on getting China bill to Biden MORE (D-Calif.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democrat says he won't introduce resolution to censure Greene MORE (D-Minn.); as well as a pair of leaders of the New Democrats, Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterMan charged in Capitol riot says he's running for Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (D-N.H.) and Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellAlabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Rep. Terri Sewell declines to run for Senate in Alabama Amazon union battle comes to Washington MORE (D-Ala.).

DCCC chair

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Before the election, the big question was whether Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosTo reverse the teaching shortage in low-income communities, give educators incentive to stay Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Democrat Cheri Bustos to retire from Congress MORE (D-Ill.) would seek a second term leading the DCCC, the party’s campaign arm. But the devastating election results — nearly a dozen vulnerable Democratic incumbents have lost reelection so far — answered that question for her.

Bustos said she would step aside, creating a late unexpected opening in a critical leadership post. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who ran for the campaign job two years ago, quickly jumped in the race, followed by Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who abandoned his uphill bid for assistant Speaker.

The election for DCCC chair has been postponed until the week after Thanksgiving to give Maloney and Cárdenas more time to campaign and lock down votes.

Both men are prolific fundraisers. Like Bustos, Maloney, 54, has touted his ability to win reelection in a conservative-leaning district that backed President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Carolina Senate passes trio of election measures 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos MORE in 2016 — something he believes can help him defend vulnerable Democratic front-line members in what certainly will be an extremely difficult midterm election cycle for the party. He’s also talked about his unique background: He’s a married gay man who has an interracial family, and was the first openly LGBT person elected to Congress from New York.

Cárdenas, 57, has pointed to his six years leading BOLD PAC, the Hispanic Caucus’s super PAC that raised tens of millions of dollars for the party and helped boost the number of Hispanic members of Congress from 25 to 40. Colleagues see Cárdenas, a former Los Angeles City councilman and state lawmaker, as someone who could help Democrats make up lost ground with tens of thousands of Hispanic voters who backed Trump in places like the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border and Miami-Dade County in south Florida.

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Remote voting

All of the leadership votes will be cast by way of a new app allowing lawmakers to record their ballots both remotely, amid the pandemic, and covertly, to ensure anonymity.

The caucus tested the novel app on Tuesday during a caucus call, when lawmakers were asked to choose the greatest musician in history from a list of four: Selena, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and U2’s Bono. Franklin, Jeffries reported, won with more than 50 percent of the vote. 

“So the caucus provided R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the great Queen of Soul,” Jeffries quipped afterwards.

Votes for several contested committee leader seats have also been pushed to the week of Nov. 30.