WASHINGTON – Fractious House Democrats feuded Tuesday over their leader's refusal to step aside after massive election losses, and some signaled they will compromise with Republicans over the next two years. In contrast, Republicans who won control of the House and strengthened their power in the Senate further closed ranks.
GOP discipline was on stark display as Senate Republicans unanimously voted to ban earmarks — lawmakers' pet projects for their states and districts — in spending bills, heeding the message tea partiers delivered Nov. 2 about their frustration with government and deficit spending. The vote occurred a day after Republican leader Mitch McConnell switched sides on the issue.
In contrast to the Republican unity, Democrats stung by the loss of their House majority let their members vent their emotions in a four-hour closed meeting before Wednesday's scheduled vote on keeping Nancy Pelosi as their leader.
"One thing the Republicans are very good at: They set goals, they set objectives and they set a way to get there," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters.
Pelosi, who is poised to move from House speaker to minority leader in the next Congress, got an earful Tuesday from some rank-and-file colleagues who said a party must change leaders when it suffers the type of losses Democrats absorbed on Nov. 2.
Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida was particularly pointed in his remarks, according to people present, saying Pelosi is the wrong person to represent Democrats as they try to rebuild.
But others defended the San Francisco liberal, and even her toughest critics said she is likely to be elected as House Democratic leader in Wednesday's closed-door elections.
Rep. Heath Shuler, a moderate from North Carolina, said he knows he will lose the election to Pelosi but wants to make the case that, after a whopping defeat, it's not wise "to go back and put the exact same leadership into place."
House Democrats appeared to iron out enough differences to prevent a revolt by black members who wanted Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C, to claim the party's second-ranking leadership post, called the whip.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a leader of moderate Democrats, will keep the No. 2 post, lawmakers said. Clyburn, the House's highest-ranking black member, is in line to be elected to a new position called "assistant leader," they said. Despite the new title, he will remain the House Democrats' third-ranking leader.
President Barack Obama has invited congressional leaders of both parties to the White House, a postelection session expected this week but now put off until Nov. 30. The White House said Tuesday that McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, expected to be the next speaker, asked for the delay because of scheduling conflicts in organizing their caucuses.
As humorist Will Rogers noted long ago, Democrats have a legacy of unruliness and discord. Tuesday's events offered scant evidence that the party will become more cohesive in the wake of its 60-seat House loss.
Shuler, for instance, showed no interest in mimicking the solidarity that House Republicans displayed during the past four years, when they voted unanimously or nearly unanimously against many high-profile initiatives by Democrats including Obama.
"It's very frustrating when I see everyone voting in bloc," Shuler told reporters, because Americans are diverse and crave bipartisan solutions.
Republicans took a different tack after the 2006 election, which cost them the House majority they had held for 12 years. Within a day, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he would step down as party leader in the next Congress.
"As a former wrestling coach, I know what it is like when your team takes second place in the state tournament," Hastert said. "It hurts. And so it is with politics."
House Republicans soon coalesced around Boehner, and he persuaded them to consistently oppose Democrats despite what some people saw as anti-GOP rebukes from voters in 2006 and 2008.
Pelosi, 70, has refused to go down with the ship. She blamed this month's Democratic losses on the bad economy, not on policy decisions by her party. She said there was no reason for her to step aside.
Many House liberals support her. But a number of rank-and-file Democrats, including some left of center, are dismayed. They note that dozens of Republican House candidates ran campaigns linking their Democratic opponents to Pelosi, who was portrayed as a hardcore liberal hopelessly out of touch with middle American values.
"She definitely hurts," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his re-election bid this month. Citing former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, Taylor said in an interview: "When he realized he was a drag on leadership, he went away. Somehow the Democratic leadership didn't learn that lesson."
But Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., called Tuesday's session cathartic. "It's what the Democratic Party's about," he said. "There are ideological differences, there are regional differences, and it was a good thing for people to be able to talk through that."
Pelosi pronounced Tuesday's long session "wonderful," then hurried past reporters.