Larson working to retain leadership post

WASHINGTON–When the political music stops at the House Democratic Caucus post-election bash, will Rep. John Larson still have a chair at the leadership table?

Larson’s staff says yes, and the 1st District Democrat has been holed up calling his House colleagues to shore up support.

But others say Larson’s ability to keep his job as chairman of the Democratic Caucus is increasingly at risk. With Republicans poised to take the Speaker’s gavel come January, Democrats will have one less leadership slot to fill in the House.

And because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has decided to try to remain as minority leader in the next Congress, it looks like other top Democrats, including the current Majority Leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, may all get bumped down one rung.

Larson is currently the 4th ranking Democrat in the House. His leadership role involves everything from fundraising for vulnerable members to relaying complaints from rank-and-file Democrats to Pelosi.

On Friday, minutes after Pelosi made her intentions clear, Larson announced he was running again for caucus chairman. Even before then, Larson, who has not been available for media interviews, was quietly calling his House colleagues making the pitch to let him stay on.

“We’re not even worrying about the scenarios and variables,” said Christopher Barnes, a top Larson aide.

“The politics for now are very simple. You call members and ask for their support,” Barnes added. “That’s what he’s doing … And traditionally he’s been really, really good at this, back to his [state] Senate president days in Connecticut.”

But other observers say that Larson has no natural constituency, unlike other current House leaders.

“He’s the odd man out,” said a Democratic lobbyist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the leadership scuffle. “He’s a great guy, but he’s a white man who doesn’t have any constituency other than Nancy Pelosi.”

Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, has broad support in the caucus, particularly among moderates who want him to stay at the leadership table as the party tries to rebuild its thinned ranks in 2012. And Hoyer’s team is confident he has the votes to win a race for the No. 2 job, which, when Democrats become the minority, will be the “whip” post. (That entails rounding up votes for the party’s agenda.)

Right now, Hoyer faces a challenge from Rep. James Clyburn, who currently holds whip’s title with Democrats in the majority. Clyburn, an African-American from South Carolina who also enjoys wide support in the caucus, is already facing pressure to move down and take the caucus chairman post.

So far, Clyburn has resisted those entreaties, but if it becomes clear that Hoyer has enough votes to win the whip’s job, he may reconsider. If he does, some say Clyburn would be a shoo-in for caucus chairman.

The only other elected leadership post left is vice chairman of the caucus, a slot currently filled by Rep. Xavier Becerra. He’s a California Democrat and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus–two voting bases that give him a lot of support heading into any contest.

Many Hill staff and other observers believe this will all get sorted out in the coming days. House Democrats plan to hold their official leadership elections next week, when lawmakers come back to Washington for the lame-duck session.

For now, Larson’s approach has been to focus on his bid for caucus chair until the contests above him shake out. If he produces a strong endorsement tally in the coming days, that will allow him to negotiate from a position of strength, even if he doesn’t get to keep his current title.

If he does end up being the odd man out, Pelosi and others may seek to give Larson an unelected post in leadership, an advisory role of some kind.

But that’s a possibility that, at least for now, Larson’s staff won’t discuss.

Talking about anything else but the caucus chairman job would be “taking your eye off the ball,” Barnes said in a phone interview as he drove back to Washington from Connecticut. “I barely have any phone battery left, because we’re talking to the boss and talking to the members. And we know them pretty well.”