By Charles Babington/The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Despite widespread complaints about massive losses that will put Democrats in the minority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she will try to stay on as leader of her party in the House.
The decision exposed a rift between Pelosi’s liberal allies and the dwindling number of moderate Democrats, who feel besieged and eager for substantive and symbolic changes in direction after Tuesday’s Republican rout. It also is likely to trigger leadership battles farther down the ladder.
Pelosi, the nation’s first female speaker, said many colleagues urged her to seek the post of minority leader in the new Congress that convenes in January. That will be the Democrats’ top post, because Republicans, who grabbed more than 60 Democratic-held seats Tuesday, will elect the next speaker. It will be John Boehner of Ohio, who will swap titles with Pelosi if she succeeds in her bid.
“We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back,” Pelosi, 70, said in a letter to her colleagues.
Allies said Pelosi would not make the bid unless she felt she had the votes. Some cautioned, however, that House members vote by secret ballot when electing the leaders of their respective parties at the start of each new Congress. Pelosi’s caucus is more heavily liberal now that many moderate Democrats lost on Tuesday, but even some Pelosi admirers are distressed by the magnitude of the losses.
Several moderates, and even some longtime Pelosi supporters, had openly criticized her in their re-election campaigns, and had urged her to step aside. Pelosi’s Friday announcement caught some off guard.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., had told a Louisville TV station on Thursday, “as good a leader as she has been, I don’t think she’s the right leader to take us forward.”
He reversed field Friday after she announced her intentions, and after a senior Pelosi ally, Rep. George Miller of California, called him.
Pelosi “has proven time and time again that she is able to build consensus in a caucus comprised of members from all across the ideological spectrum,” Yarmuth said.
Other House Democrats held their ground.
Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said he was “disappointed that Speaker Pelosi is going to seek the position of Minority Leader.” North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell’s office said he hopes Pelosi “will change her mind and step aside.”
Reps. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Mike Ross of Arkansas also said they opposed Pelosi.
They were among the many House Democrats whom Republicans criticized for their loyalty to the California liberal, who was a forceful though generally well-liked speaker. During her four years as Speaker, Pelosi used all her political muscle to enact contentious measures such as President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
Republicans were giddy in learning the news.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in a meeting with reporters, put his hands over his head and applauded. “My breath is taken away by that announcement,” he said, grinning.
In a statement, White House spokesman Bill Burton said the president appreciates the work of Pelosi and the Democratic leadership team “who have been great partners in moving the country forward” and he looks forward to working with them.
Pelosi’s announcement set off a likely battle for the No. 2 Democratic leadership job, now held by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. The party’s third-ranking leader, House Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, said he will try to keep the job, which will become the second in command when Democrats become the minority.
If Clyburn — the House’s highest-ranking African-American — prevails, Hoyer would be forced out of the leadership ranks for the first time in many years.
Hoyer said he would make a decision after consulting with lawmakers, adding, “I have received an outpouring of support from Democratic colleagues who have told me that I should remain in our party’s leadership.”
Hoyer is more centrist than Pelosi, and the two have long had a cordial but somewhat wary relationship.
Pelosi’s bid presumably will keep her atop the Democratic caucus, which will number about 190 members next year. But it would mark a big drop from being speaker, which carries tremendous power to influence legislation and is second only to the vice president in the line of presidential succession.
Among those defending her was Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. “We’re in a political storm,” he said, “but we don’t need to adopt an ‘any leader in a storm’ mentality.”
Several Democratic lawmakers in conservative districts had vowed to oppose Pelosi as speaker, but some of them lost their re-election bids all the same.
One survivor, Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, had said he might challenge Pelosi because the party needs a more moderate leader. Shuler noted that he lost his job as Washington Redskins quarterback in 1997 after the team performed poorly.
As the magnitude of Tuesday’s election losses sunk in, even some longtime supporters of Pelosi said she needed to step aside as the party leader.
“I voted for everything she asked me to vote for,” said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. “You know, sometimes in this business it’s difficult to know when to move on.”
“With all the losses that we had with governors and all the redistricting that’s going to be done, we don’t need the target,” Sires said, referring to the once-a-decade House redistricting process about to begin nationwide.
If Pelosi remains as the Democrats’ House leader, it’s possible the party will absorb historic election losses without making significant leadership changes. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will keep his post.
Pelosi’s decision also may enable Republicans to keep demonizing her as an emblem of Democratic liberalism, as they did in so many campaigns this fall.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Andrew Taylor, David Espo, Ben Evans, Henry C. Jackson, Julie Pace and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.