House Democrats prepare to pass the torch, avoiding messy leadership fights

The departure of Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the leadership could easily have led to a power vacuum in which a host of ambitious lawmakers — old and young — publicly fought for the chance to lead House Democrats.

Instead, a new generation – representatives Hakeem Jeffries, 52, of New York; Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts; and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California — will almost certainly be voted into the top three leadership spots this week without challenge or fanfare.

There were a few bumps along the way. Some younger members are bitter that Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 82, of South Carolina, chose to remain in the lead rather than follow Pelosi, also 82, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, until at sunset.

But, overall, Pelosi and his almost certain successor, Jeffries, were able to orchestrate a smooth passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

Shortly before Pelosi’s Thursday announcement of his resignation, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff indicated he would not run for House leadership and would instead focus his efforts on a future candidacy for the Senate. That avoided a protracted and upsetting fight between Schiff, a top Pelosi ally, fellow Californian and prolific fundraiser, and Jeffries, who is set to become the first black congressional caucus leader.

Hoyer, of Maryland, who has held leadership positions since George HW Bush was president, also said he would not seek the top job and instead planned to return to the powerful Appropriations Committee.

And rather than taking Clark for the No. 2 leadership position, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington decided to run for another term leading his caucus of about 100 House Liberals.

However, Clyburn’s decision to remain in the leadership represented a setback for those calling for “new blood” and hoping for a clean break from the triumvirate of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn that had led Democrats for the past two decades.

Clyburn announced he would be running for his old minority position, known as “Deputy Leader”, which deprived younger members of the position. It had been considered job #3.

Aguilar originally had his sights set on the deputy leader job, but Clyburn’s decision forced him to run for caucus chair. Under a new arrangement, the deputy leader will move to No. 4 and the Democratic caucus chair will move to No. 3.

That left Rep. Joe Neguse, 38, who campaigned behind the scenes for months for the caucus chair, as the odd one out.

Some of Neguse’s allies urged him to stay in the running and face Aguilar, frustrated by the domino effect created by Clyburn’s decision. But Pelosi quickly endorsed the slate of young leaders – Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar – and others followed suit, ruling out any possibility of a rank-and-file rebellion and a messy leadership fight between Aguilar and Neguse.

“There are a lot of angry people. The feeling is that Speaker Pelosi and Chief Hoyer had the grace to step down, and people can’t believe Clyburn doesn’t want to. There is real resentment out there about the impact of the vote down,” a young House Democrat told NBC News.

“There’s disbelief that it’s just about retaining power – not that there’s any particular goal in sight. It’s hard to feel like turning the page.

A Clyburn spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Clyburn called Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar “our new generation of Democratic leaders” but did not weigh in on Neguse’s situation.

Last week, a potential escape hatch emerged. Neguse informed his colleagues on Nov. 21 that he was officially dropping his candidacy for caucus chair and would run for chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), the messaging arm of the Democrats of the Democratic Party. Chamber, if the functioning of the DPCC could be restructured.

Shortly thereafter, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar informed their members in a joint letter that a rule change would be proposed this week to do precisely that: revamp the DPCC to have an elected chair, likely Neguse, and three elected co-chairs in below.

Some members have referred to this position as the “Chair of Chairs” and it is a structure that existed before.

Neguse would almost certainly be the favorite to win this race. The son of Eritrean immigrants and Colorado’s first elected black congressman, Neguse saw his national profile rise after serving as a Democratic prosecutor in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.

For the past two years, he has served as one of four co-chairs of the DPCC, along with representatives Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Ted Lieu of California; Dingell and Lieu are now among at least four Democratic Caucus vice-presidential candidates.

“Over the past two years, I have worked alongside my fellow DPCC co-chairs to engage every member of our diverse caucus to develop our message framing,” Neguse said in a letter to colleagues on Monday.

“This message of putting people above politics became an essential tool for our members as we defended our democracy and challenged historic norms by limiting Republican gains in this year’s election.”

In addition to Dingell and Lieu, Representatives Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty of Ohio are running for caucus vice president. It is the No. 5 spot, considered a stepping stone to other high-level leadership positions.

The race to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, for the 2024 cycle will feature a clash between two Californians, Representatives Tony Cardenas and Ami Bera.

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