Washington Post Paul Kane

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Award-winning Washington Post congressional correspondent offers an analysis of the dramatic post-election jockeying that’s taking place for House leadership positions.

Paul Kane is a veteran of congressional coverage since the early days of the Gingrich revolution. Now a Washington Post congressional reporter focusing on the GOP House majority, he came to DC in '95, starting at States News Service. His byline has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News and The Boston Globe, among other papers, and he's written a washingtonpost.com blog about Congress and worked for Roll Call. Kane also spent a year as a copy editor and writing coach for China Daily, the English-language paper in Beijing.


Tavis: Both parties in Congress are putting together their leadership teams for the next session, and nowhere is the battle more heated than among Democrats. Paul Kane is an award-winning journalist who’s been covering this story closely for “The Washington Post” and he joins us tonight from Washington. Paul, good to have you on the program.
Paul Kane: Anytime, Tavis, anytime.
Tavis: So, what gives? Why are Democrats fighting so intensely about these leadership posts now?
Kane: Basically, whenever these elections are held and you always have the fallout immediately afterward, and for the winners it’s always easier to divide up the spoils of victory.
For the losers, in the House of Representatives it actually is – there is one less seat at the leadership table when you’re in the minority, so it’s always a bit tougher because people have gotten used to each sort of interest group of the various blocs of power inside the Democratic Caucus have had somebody there, and now there’s one less seat.
So it really is, literally and figuratively, a game of musical chairs, and they’re trying to figure out when the music stops in the middle of next week who ends up sitting at those seats.
Right now, two very powerful people, Jim Clyburn, who is the highest-ranking African American in congressional history, really, and Steny Hoyer, who has served as sort of an outreach person to moderate to conservative Democrats, those are the two people jockeying for what could be the last seat at the table and it’s gotten a little bit heated in the last couple of days.
Tavis: This in part happens, to your earlier analysis, not just because there’s one lesser leadership post as compared to the Senate, one fewer, but it’s also a battle because Nancy Pelosi surprised some when she announced that she was, in fact, going to run again to be the leader. She would, of course, be the leader of the minority party now.
But how much did her decision to run complicate things, and how is that decision, as you’ve been covering this, resonating on the Hill?
Kane: Okay, first of all, her decision is sort of – it’s like she’s up here as speaker and now she’s going to move down a notch to minority leader, and that creates this little crunch for Hoyer and for Clyburn, because Hoyer is right now majority leader.
He thought that she wouldn’t run and that he would go from majority to minority leader, and that Clyburn also thought he was going to go from majority whip to minority whip. So now instead you’ve got Hoyer and Clyburn both fighting over the number two spot, the whip spot.
Her decision to stick around has been one that has surprised many people. It’s left some puzzled, it’s left some angry. But people have forgotten that she really is a fighter, and she digs in and does not like losing. She wants to go out on her own terms, and I think she wants at least two more years to try and salvage that majority, try and win back the majority, and also re-fashion her own image. It really took a beating this year with just tens of thousands of campaign commercials run all across the country portraying her in a negative way.
It has left some people very confused that they could end up with the exact same leadership team as they had the past few years.
Tavis: But when you’re in the minority and you’re fighting an uphill battle, how, beyond the fact – we already know, to your point, that she’s a fighter, so when you say “re-fashion her image,” what would that look like? How would she go about doing that, given that you’re in the minority? You don’t control anything now.
Kane: Yeah, that’s true. What she would be doing, her job responsibility would be so much different. She wouldn’t be in charge of governing the House the way she has been the last couple of years, in terms of trying to constantly put together these majorities for far-reaching, aggressive legislation.
The process of the Congress, what the public saw the last two years was a really up-close look at the process of legislative sausage-making, and she’s not going to be responsible for doing that anymore.
People who are her best supporters, the George Millers of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, they believe that now that she’s no longer responsible for trying to do those things, for trying to coax a deal between this bloc of moderates and this bloc of liberals, now that she doesn’t have to do that, that she can focus more on sharply defining the Democratic issue set.
Where do Democrats stand, where do Republicans stand? This is what Democrats believe in. They think she’s the right messenger for that job. Others think that her image has taken such a pounding that she’s the last person to deliver that message.
Tavis: I wasn’t immediately aware of this – that is to say, on election night I wasn’t immediately aware of the ramifications until we got deeper into the night and started to see these losses. Then it occurred to me that interestingly, for all of the push-back on Nancy Pelosi for being too liberal, the Democratic Caucus now, arguably, is more liberal now than it was before Election Day, because all those centrists, all those Blue Dogs, got run out of town.
So in terms of being able to be reelected the leader of her party inside the House, it might very well be easier now for Pelosi to win as minority leader than it was to become Speaker of the House, yes?
Kane: Absolutely. The math, it’s sort of complicated and tough to explain, but she went from – their high-water mark was 258 seats, which they hit about a year ago this week after winning a special election up in New York. That was when they got to 258 seats. Now they’re going to be down around 192, 193. So to be minority leader all you need to do is win 50 plus one – 50 percent plus one.
So 192 seats, you only need 97 votes. Well, there are 35 or 36 Democrats from the state of California alone, and almost all of them are close Pelosi supporters. So any time she begins a race, she begins with about 30 to 35 votes in her home state back pocket.
Tavis: A couple of those persons you mentioned in the California delegation, I don’t know where they stand so I’m not trying to pre-judge, but a couple of those persons happen to be African Americans; one of them, in fact, my congresswoman.
I raise that because it happens that Steny Hoyer is a White man. It happens that Jim Clyburn is a Black man. It happens that we have an African American president. It happens that there are 40 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who may very well, I suspect, most of them, line up behind Clyburn in this fight for the number two slot. A very high-ranking Hispanic congressman came out recently for Clyburn.
So you start to see – you start to hear footsteps, at least, of a Brown/Black coalition that might be lining up behind Clyburn. I only raise that because I’m wondering how that might fracture or splinter the Democratic Party in the House, quite frankly, along racial lines.
Kane: Oh, yeah. If this goes all – if Hoyer/Clyburn is a very close race that goes all the way to the election next week, it could be – it will make a lot of people uncomfortable. Let’s face it – Barack Obama is starting off his reelection campaign now. He needs to reenergize the African American vote, all of those first-time Black voters from 2008.
He needs to get that group of people back behind him 110 percent. He does not want to begin that by kicking the highest-ranking Black congressman ever out of leadership. That’s just a recipe for disaster.
Then there’s this other side of wow, they just lost all these centrist and independent voters who broke away from Democrats. They don’t want to kick the guy out of leadership in Steny Hoyer who speaks to those voters better than anyone.
There are some who want to try to accommodate this in which one of the two of them accepts the number three job, and then they sort of bump everybody down the line.
Now, that bumping down the line would end up getting Congressman Becerra, who you referenced as a backer of Clyburn, he would then be the person kicked out on the musical chairs game where there’s one less seat. Now you have the Latino voting bloc (laughter), which is really, really important, as Harry Reid – the Latinos saved Harry Reid, so you can’t respond by taking the one Latino member in congressional leadership and kicking him out.
It is a game that is – it’s more than a game. It is a dilemma that they are trying to figure out. If they bump Becerra out of leadership they may have to find a soft landing for him in an advisory leadership role, maybe also give him a committee – they’re not chairmanships anymore; they’re ranking memberships – give him some committee, a high profile, something that will mollify that concern.
Tavis: It’s amazing, and I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek a little – amazing what happens when Black and Brown people, after years of not having any power, start to demand some respect. All hell seems to break loose in the leadership in the House, but I digress on that point.
Let me ask you right quick, in about 30 seconds here, let me ask you – it would appear at the moment, while there’s some rumblings, that Republicans don’t have anywhere near, interestingly, the cantankerous politics being played on their leadership positions as Democrats do. Fair statement?
Kane: Absolutely. It’s amazing. Republicans – this leadership team that the Republicans have have really had probably more personal palace intrigue than the Democrats, but they just – as winners, you end up with so many more prizes.
You end up with more leadership seats. You now have committee chairmanships to give away. You can take this potential fight over here about this committee chairmanship and tell that person, “No, we’re going to give you the number four leadership position, so don’t challenge Spencer here, don’t do that.”
They’ve really cleared it up pretty well. There’s one potential fight there for their number four leadership spot between an insider, Jeb Hensarling – a very conservative insider, I should say – and Michelle Bachmann, who is a Tea Party favorite, and it could get very interesting to see how much the Tea Party activists rally behind Bachmann, and that could create a little bit of trouble for Republicans.
But again, it’s a little far down the line so it’s not going to be quite the drama that Democrats have.
Tavis: It might seem like Washington Beltway politics, stuff that only matters inside the Beltway, but it really does matter because it has a lot to do with how President Obama is going to get his year started when this new Congress comes into session, how this leadership stuff actually works itself out.
So tonight, I thank Paul Kane from “The Washington Post” for giving us some insights on that. Paul, thanks for your time – good to have you on the program.
Kane: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm