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Rep. Jim Clyburn survives leadership challenge

Clyburn, 82, has served in House Democratic leadership for nearly two decades. Some younger Democrats were upset with his decision to run for another top job.

WASHINGTON — Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., beat back a leadership challenge Thursday and will remain among the top House Democrats in the next Congress.

Clyburn had faced a last-minute, surprise challenge from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., for assistant leader, the No. 4 post, but the latter dropped his bid moments before the vote and endorsed Clyburn, members leaving the closed-door vote said.

Cicilline’s decision means that Clyburn, 82, will remain in leadership at a time of generational change for the party.

Some younger Democrats had expressed frustration that Clyburn decided to stay in leadership, even after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also 82, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, announced their plans to step aside for a new generation of leaders. Clyburn, the current majority whip, has served in Democratic leadership for nearly two decades.

His successful bid to remain in leadership prevented a rising young star in the party, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., from landing one of the top four jobs. To ease tensions, Democrats opted to create a new elected leadership post by restructuring their policy and messaging arm.

On Thursday, Neguse, 38, won the uncontested race to become chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. He will oversee three newly elected DPCC co-chairs: Reps. Veronica Escobar of Texas, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, and Lauren Underwood of Illinois.

Cicilline, who is openly gay and chairman of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, stood up during Thursday's election and gave a rousing speech about the importance of having an LGBTQ voice at the leadership table, members said.

"The point he wanted to make is legitimate, which is that LGBTQ members are a significant part of our caucus and we did not have one in any position of leadership," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a Clyburn loyalist and fellow Black Caucus member, told NBC News. "I think everyone understands that we probably should have been a little more intentional during the move to get people to run for positions."

Cleaver and other Democrats said they would be pushing to create a new leadership post for an LGBTQ member after hearing from Cicilline.

As assistant leader, Clyburn will serve alongside a new leadership slate. His protégé, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, of New York, will serve as minority leader in the next Congress and will be the first Black lawmaker to lead a political party’s caucus in either chamber. Democrats have also elected Rep. Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts, as minority whip, and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California, as Democratic Caucus chairman.

Cicilline, 61, announced his surprise challenge against Clyburn on Wednesday, arguing that Democrats needed LGBTQ representation in leadership and saying he was inspired to run after the recent shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at an LGBTQ nightclub.

But his bid was short-lived. Cicilline dropped out of the race Thursday morning, after less than 24 hours.

Although some younger Democrats had argued that Clyburn should step aside, the South Carolina Democrat said on “Face the Nation” Sunday that he wanted to remain in a leadership role so that his party still had representation from the South. Clyburn's supporters also argued it was important to have an experienced member in leadership.

"When you are in a tight situation, you go to the old quarterback, Tom Brady. That's the way it is in life," Cleaver said. "People who have already had those experiences can provide great advice to young people."