WASHINGTON — Among House members, fierce ambition, white-knuckled strategizing, nasty personal attacks, and backroom intrigue won't cease once the votes are counted on November 7. That's because a little more than a week after Election Day, House Republicans and Democrats are expected to meet separately behind closed doors -- during the lame-duck session that begins on November 13 -- to select their party leaders for the 110th Congress. Although these leadership contests have received little attention amid the din of the current campaign, their outcome could go a long way in determining each party's path during the next two years -- and could have a potentially big impact on national policy.
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On the Republican side, the level of uncertainty over who will lead has grown exponentially as the party's electoral prospects have tanked in recent weeks. The GOP leadership team that once was a juggernaut of effectiveness has been rocked during the 109th Congress by intraparty fatigue, feuding, and policy woes, not to mention a crushing bout of legal and ethical malfeasance. Then, Republican leaders descended into chaos and finger-pointing following the accusations earlier this month that they failed to respond appropriately to warnings that then-Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., was making sexual advances toward underage congressional pages.
"There is a real feeling that Republicans are under siege and are suffering from rot," said the top aide to a veteran House Democrat. When the dust settles after the election, it's unclear -- even to House Republicans themselves -- which leaders will be left standing. Considerable upheaval seems likely. "There will be changes at the top, but nobody wants to discuss it now," said a House GOP member who demanded anonymity.
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who has faced some angry criticism and even suggestions that he should resign because of his apparent mismanagement of the House page scandal, attempted to shore up his standing by declaring at an October 5 press conference in Illinois, "I expect to run for speaker" in the new Congress. Nevertheless, the end may be imminent for Hastert.
For months, aides have conceded that the 64-year-old speaker -- who suffers from diabetes and other ailments, and has a yen for overseas travel -- would leave the leadership and, in all likelihood, the House if Republicans lose the majority. But even if they retain control, Hastert's negative taint from the Foley scandal might make members less inclined to grant him another term as speaker. Although affection for "the coach" within GOP ranks runs deep, some have been grumbling -- starting long before Foley's September 29 resignation -- that Hastert has yielded broad authority to his aides, and is often out of touch with internal House politics.
As far back as Election Night 2004, a source close to the speaker predicted to National Journal that Hastert would step down in early 2007. And a well-connected House Republican member privately confided late last year, "Hastert is tired, and his heart is not in it. There is not a snowball's chance in hell that he will continue after 2006."
If Hastert does go, it is by no means certain that he would be succeeded by either of the next members in line, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, or Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo. And the speaker may not be the only House GOP leader missing after this year. Two others -- Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, whose swing district is highly competitive, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who has been caught up in the Foley scandal -- could lose on Election Day.
Up and down the Republican leadership slate, in fact, competitive contests and surprise challenges could arise when party members gather behind closed doors on November 15 to elect a new team. The political stakes will be high, as the GOP's leadership choices will help to determine whether the party pursues a strategy of conflict or cooperation over the next two years -- and whether the White House will still have strong political allies on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, among Democrats, the elevation of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to the speakership appears likely if the party captures House control. An intraparty feud for the majority leader's post, however, could put a damper on Democratic hopes of building on post-election momentum and unity.
When Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., made the stunning announcement in June that he intended to run for majority leader if the Democrats won control, perhaps no one was more shocked than Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who was widely expected to ascend unopposed to the job. A few days after his announcement, Murtha said he would suspend his campaign until after the election, because some Democrats viewed the bid as a distraction. Yet behind the scenes, the two men have been engaged in a fierce struggle to round up support from their colleagues.
The race points up long-simmering tensions between the minority leader and her second-in-command. Pelosi, who is more liberal than the moderate Hoyer, beat him in a bitter 2001 contest for minority whip. Earlier this year, and again last month, Hoyer pledged his support for Pelosi in the 110th Congress, but she pointedly declined to reciprocate. "I'm not making any of those kinds of statements," she said in June. "I didn't ask for his endorsement, and he hasn't asked for mine. I'm not getting into it."
Although Pelosi is officially neutral in the Hoyer-Murtha contest, Murtha has long been her close friend and ally. Murtha, in fact, served as Pelosi's campaign manager in her 2001 victory over Hoyer for whip. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a leading Murtha ally, said that Pelosi has been "a positive factor" in Murtha's leadership bid, and that some Democrats "think that they would work better together" than a Pelosi-Hoyer team.
Both camps sound confident about the outcome of the prospective majority leader's race, and some bad feelings seem inevitable. With Democrats scheduled to elect their leaders on November 16, other clashes are possible, particularly if members feel inclined to reward Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., for his chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As both parties focus on the November 7 election, many unknowns surround the leadership contests, the participants, and the outcome. Numerous House aides -- who are eager to tout their bosses' strengths and prospects -- responded to interview requests for this story, but only a few usually chatty members returned phone calls from the campaign trail.
For example, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, has been mentioned as a leadership prospect. But his spokesman, Matt Lloyd, insisted, "He is not thinking about that. He's focused on keeping a Republican majority.... His hope is that we don't have to worry about leadership changes."
"Most House Republicans are holding off on leadership campaigns," contended Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who plans to run for GOP Conference chair. "Everyone is focusing on the ground game and retaining the majority. Once we clear that hurdle, we will roll up our sleeves for the next item."
Likewise, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said that the intraparty struggles are "down the road," and that "every member should extend all efforts to achieve the majority." Talk of leadership contests "keeps everyone's eye off the ball," she maintained.
The question of party control is merely one factor behind lawmakers' uncertainty about the leadership contests. In the past turbulent month that they have been away from Washington, few have had opportunities to gauge the sentiments of other members. The unpredictable election means that Republicans, in particular, aren't sure which of their colleagues will return. Democrats might discover a few dozen incoming feisty freshmen asserting themselves in their caucus. In the party that loses the election, top leaders might step down or face challenges from eager and perhaps disaffected rank-and-filers.
Because the leadership elections are scheduled to take place the week after voters go to the polls, insurgent members will have little time to mount challenges. Look for a set of brief but intense campaigns in each party, amid probing reviews of what went right and wrong on November 7.
On The Republican side
House Republicans may be nearing the end of a historically stable reign. Hastert has held the speaker's post for nearly eight years -- longer than any other Republican in the nation's history. And Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, served for nearly 11 years as a top leader before an indictment forced him to step aside in September 2005; he ultimately quit the House in June.
DeLay's exit from the leadership led to a four-month interregnum, which ended on February 2, when Boehner succeeded him as majority leader with a second-ballot victory over Blunt, who had filled DeLay's shoes on an acting basis. After that hard-fought contest, the two largely reconciled: Boehner, 56, took the public spotlight and managed the party's agenda, while Blunt, also 56, remained as whip but faded into the background. Now, regardless of whether the election leaves their party in the majority or the minority, the two Midwesterners are the front-runners for the party's top posts.
Most Republicans gave Boehner good scores for his stint as majority leader. By late spring, many Republicans were crediting his more accommodating, "not-DeLay" leadership style for having soothed simmering tensions in their conference and having forged agreement on some key legislative issues. More recently, though, Boehner may have endangered his standing with colleagues by suggesting, when the Foley scandal became public, that Hastert failed to pursue allegations that had been brought to his attention. "Boehner made a critical screwup by throwing the speaker under the bus," said a former GOP leadership aide.
Judging by a poll this week of National Journal's Political Insiders, Boehner could be in trouble. When Republican insiders were asked whom they would prefer to see as speaker, 14 percent picked Hastert, 26 percent picked Boehner, and 60 percent picked "someone else."
For his part, Boehner has had little to say publicly about the ethics scandal, other than to stand by his revised statement that he believed he had informed Hastert earlier this year of a warning about Foley that he had received from another member. In an interview this week, Boehner made clear his interest in remaining a part of the GOP leadership team but would not discuss details. His focus, he said, is "getting our people out to vote" on November 7. "It's taking a while to build enthusiasm, given voter concerns about the Iraq war, federal spending, and Foley," he conceded.
As for Blunt, many observers have said that his low profile since his February defeat will make it difficult for him to rebuild his influence. "I don't know if he can come back after a loss," said the ex-leadership aide. Members seldom regain a leadership post after losing a spirited bid. One exception was Boehner, who returned to the leadership seven years after he had been ousted, but he benefited by showing his mettle as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. Blunt's spokeswoman had no comment about his intentions, other than to say that he "plans to run for majority whip in the next Congress."
Two prominent conservatives -- Pence and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz. -- could provide competition for either Boehner or Blunt. The 110-member Republican Study Committee presumably could provide a base of conservative support to either Pence, its current chairman, or Shadegg, who previously led the group. A key question is whether either could find sufficient support elsewhere in the party.
In the January maneuvering to replace DeLay, both men received some early attention. After Pence, 47, decided not to run, the 57-year-old Shadegg made a late entry, got 40 votes on the first ballot, and then withdrew; most of his supporters switched to Boehner. While neither conservative has shown his hand on pursuing a leadership bid, each has recently attracted favorable mentions from allies in the media.
Pence, in seeking to broaden his appeal, could cite his co-sponsorship, with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, of an immigration reform proposal intended to find a middle ground within the party this summer. As RSC chairman, Pence has called for a tighter federal budget and a crackdown on earmarks. But some Republicans, including appropriators, have criticized the former radio broadcaster as a media hound.
Shadegg, who is among the few surviving firebrands from the GOP class of 1994, retains a commitment to reform and styles himself as a conservative who can reach across his party and get things done. As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he has been active on health care issues, especially consumer choice. He served briefly as Republican Policy Committee chairman in 2005, but relinquished that post in January to run for majority leader.
Also worth watching in the leadership contests is a pair of younger rising stars: Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and GOP Policy Committee Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla. First elected in 2000, both have moved quickly to make a mark.
By most accounts, Cantor, 43, has performed ably as an active and persuasive vote-counter on the whip team. As the only Jewish House Republican, he is a vocal supporter of Israel and the Bush administration's war on terrorism. He has made dozens of fundraising trips across the nation for other GOP members and candidates, and he chaired the NRCC's "Battleground" fundraising program, which has raised more than $22 million from members.
Although Cantor is unlikely to challenge Blunt, who promoted him into the party leadership, many GOP insiders consider him a logical successor as whip. In fact, Cantor campaigned actively for the post in January on the prospect that a Blunt victory for majority leader would create a vacancy. "We would have won a first-ballot victory handily," Cantor said in a recent interview. Each of his three opponents in that campaign -- Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., 43; Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., 55; and Zack Wamp, R-Tenn., 49 -- could seek the whip's job or another leadership position, depending on post-election circumstances.
Because of his youthful looks, Putnam, 32, strikes many veteran Capitol Hill aides as a staffer himself. Nevertheless, he has become a Hastert favorite and has impressed his colleagues with several challenging assignments. After defeating three other contenders for the Policy Committee post in February, Putnam expanded a Shadegg project to organize regular "unity dinners" where a cross section of GOP members exchange views on tough issues, such as immigration and lobbying reform.
As a self-styled honest broker, Putnam was deputized by Hastert in September to review the results of this summer's multiple hearings on immigration by House committees and to prepare a legislative response; Congress has passed some of those proposals as riders to appropriations bills. More recently, Putnam has emerged as an effective party spokesman at a time when other leaders have been damaged or reluctant to step forward. "Adam is a great member and a fresh face," said an aide to another House GOP leader.
Meanwhile, until a few weeks ago, NRCC Chairman Reynolds was another upwardly mobile GOP member. A savvy pol who served as minority leader in the New York Assembly, he was viewed by some insiders as a potential future House speaker. But Reynolds has been dogged by questions about what he knew about Foley's e-mail exchanges with a page; his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, who had worked for Foley, resigned amid the uproar. Now Reynolds, 56, is facing re-election jeopardy against Democrat Jack Davis, a self-financing industrialist. Although Reynolds might revive his leadership ambition if he survives on November 7, colleagues could be reluctant to tap a leader who needs to worry about getting re-elected.
Three members have been competing for more than a year to succeed Reynolds at the NRCC. They are Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla., 57; Phil English, R-Pa., 50; and Pete Sessions, R-Texas, 51. Each has claimed a good shot at winning.
Pryce likewise faces re-election woes in Ohio against Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, a county commissioner. Even if Pryce, 55, hangs on, some Republicans have criticized her four-year tenure as Republican Conference chairwoman, calling her too cautious and not comfortable with party dogma. She is far more moderate than the other GOP leaders. "She has had a hard time getting out front on issues," said one House Republican. Unhappiness with Pryce fueled some party renegades' effort to force votes on all GOP leaders in February, but they fell about 30 votes short.
Several members have voiced interest in running for conference chairman. They include conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., 51; Melissa Hart, R-Pa., 44, who lost to Kingston in 2002; and Blackburn, 54.
The conservative Blackburn has drawn attention in recent months by calling for more-aggressive marketing of the GOP message. A long-time marketer who got her start by selling books door to door while in college, Blackburn said that Republicans have "failed to do the groundwork... or lay out an orderly timeline" for selling their efforts.
Several sources noted that the new Republican leadership will need to include an articulate woman, given the mishandling of the page scandal by the party's mostly male leadership and the desire for a voice to compete directly with Pelosi. "Any organization is well served to have women in leadership and to listen to them in how best to communicate our message," Blackburn said. Hart, who has been politically close to Boehner, could also fill that bill; she represents a more competitive Rust Belt district.
On the Democratic side
Although nothing is certain in the current political environment, the 66-year-old Pelosi would probably have overwhelming support as the Democrats' nominee for speaker if the party takes the majority.
Hoyer, 67, who has been mentioned as the most likely alternative, has affirmed his support for Pelosi for the top post. In this week's poll of NJ's Political Insiders, 59 percent of Democrats said they would prefer to see Pelosi as speaker, compared with 18 percent who preferred Hoyer, and 24 percent who preferred "someone else."
It's important to remember that a narrow Democratic victory on November 7 could mean that the full House's January 3 vote for speaker gets a bit dicey. "If Democrats have a one- or two-seat majority, Pelosi might not get the votes required to be speaker," a GOP leadership aide said. "Renegade [Democrats] could support another Democrat, or even a Republican." In addition, Democrats or Republicans might try to encourage a few members on the other side of the aisle to switch parties before the vote for speaker.
House members usually vote for their party's nominee during the largely ceremonial vote, but they are not formally bound to do so. In January 1997, nine Republicans voted "present," or for somebody other than ethics-tarnished Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. He won another two years in the job with 216 of the 431 votes, barely squeaking out a majority of those voting.
This year, Democratic nominees in competitive House contests in Florida and Indiana have said that they would not support Pelosi for speaker; another likely freshman from Colorado has distanced himself from her. If elected, they -- and perhaps some incumbents uncomfortable with Pelosi's style and liberal image -- could nevertheless change their minds and support her. After all, enthusiastic Pelosi supporters, eager to make her the first woman speaker in the nation's history, are sure to put intense pressure on Democrats to toe the party line.
For now, the Hoyer-Murtha contest for majority leader is the chief focus among House Democrats. Some Democrats hope that Pelosi or others will find a way to avoid such a showdown, but in the meantime, each camp is sounding optimistic about its prospects.
"Murtha would win today," Moran contended. "He has a majority of the returning incumbents." Moran attributed that support to outspoken opposition by Murtha, 74, to the Iraq war, plus his experience in internal Democratic contests. Moran contended that a majority of the House's moderate Blue Dogs and New Democrats are backing Murtha.
Both contenders, in fact, are relatively moderate and are claiming support from that wing of their party. In National Journal's 2005 vote ratings, Hoyer had a composite liberal score of 70.7; Murtha's score was 62. (Subscription Required)
Tauscher, a Hoyer ally, dismissed Moran's claims that party centrists will support Murtha as "badly written fiction." (Interestingly, Tauscher chairs the New Democrat Coalition and Moran was a founding member.) In talking up Hoyer's prospects, she declared, "There's a reason that it's a secret ballot.
"I hope that no one questions the elevation of Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer to leadership," Tauscher added. "Other than Rahm Emanuel, they have worked the hardest to achieve the majority over many years of engagement, with no holds barred and personal sacrifices."
Hoyer's allies have also touted his support from some prominent liberals -- including Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., both prospective committee chairmen -- who had backed Pelosi in her 2001 victory over Hoyer. He also has the support of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who is a chief deputy minority whip and the co-chairwoman of the House's "Out of Iraq" caucus.
"Nothing is a given," another Hoyer ally said. "But many Democrats are not comfortable with Murtha because he is pro-gun and opposes abortion. Hoyer is best qualified because of his strong and productive role in building the [Democratic] Caucus."
For Democrats, the other big leadership mystery surrounds what reward Emanuel, 46, might get for his chairmanship of the DCCC. Some have touted him as an ideal majority whip. But that could put him in a contest against Democratic Caucus Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C., another past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The 66-year-old Clyburn has made numerous campaign appearances this year with Democratic candidates and has voiced interest in moving up the leadership ladder. "As chairman of House Democrats, I have talked about the need for a new direction for America," Clyburn said.
To avoid a confrontation, Clyburn and Emanuel could agree that one of them would seek the whip post and the other would seek the caucus chairman post. In recent years, House Democrats generally have been more inclined than Republicans to respect seniority in electing leaders. "The Democratic Party won't turn [Clyburn] down if he wants ... to remain the third-ranking Democrat," Frank said. Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson, D-Conn., 58, might also try to move up the ladder.
Emanuel has not publicly discussed any leadership ambitions, but he has said that he does not want another term as DCCC chairman. Speculation is already mounting over his successor, who would be appointed by the top Democratic leader. Aspirants for the campaign committee chairmanship might include Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., 47, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., 40, two ambitious members who co-chaired the DCCC's "Red to Blue" fundraising program this year. Other possible contenders include Reps. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., 44, and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., 55, both of whom have previously sought the DCCC post.
In a sense, the Democrats' post-election leadership prospects might be more straightforward if they fall short of taking House control. In that case, they would have no additional leadership posts -- notably, the speakership -- to fill, and all of their party leaders might seek to stay right where they are. But widespread anger and frustration throughout their members' ranks could prompt a shake-up. For now, Democrats hope to avoid that dilemma.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.