Susan Walsh/AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday after being reelected as the leader of the House Democrats.

Why Nancy Pelosi remains leader of House Democrats despite huge loss

Nancy Pelosi wins her bid to remain leader of the House Democrats, as leadership on both sides of the aisle remains largely the same – despite Election 2010's mandate for change.

Call it a triumph of inside politics. While midterms 2010 felt like a tsunami outside of Washington, the waves didn’t reach Capitol Hill's corner offices, where House leadership teams in both parties barely budged.

Despite presiding over the loss of more than 60 seats in midterm elections, Speaker Nancy Pelosi today retained control of her caucus, with only token opposition.

Just minutes later, incoming 61st Speaker John Boehner – who overcame tea party critics and ambitions in GOP leadership ranks – was unanimously confirmed as Republican leader, while celebrating his 61st birthday and, at latest count, his party’s 61-seat net gain.

IN PICTURES: Election Day 2010

Managing the aspirations unleashed by a big victory can be as challenging as containing the rifts opened by a big loss. In both cases, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner made it look easy – a sign of how deeply entrenched leadership on both sides of the aisle has become.

“Usually, you bet on the establishment in congressional politics,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Pelosi and Boehner are strong congressional leaders and powerful insiders. They know how to survive these moments of turmoil.”

“Boehner gave tea party candidates enough promises that they will be heard and at the same time reminding all the other Republicans of what they owe him and what he can do for them – and the combination is enough to retain leadership,” he adds.

Pelosi challenged from the right

For Pelosi, the challenge was to manage disappointments across the broad spectrum of her caucus. Progressives, led by Reps. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon and Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, called for a delay in the leadership vote to give members more time to consider their options.

“When you have taken the largest losses of any majority in my lifetime, you better undertand the reasons for that loss,” said Congressman DeFazio, in a briefing with reporters during a break in today’s caucus meeting.

“Republicans did not win this election, the Democrats lost it,” added Congresswoman Kaptur. “Voters will press that reset button every single election until we address serious economic concerns.”

The measure failed on a secret ballot, 129 to 68.

In her bid to retain leadership, Pelosi defeated a rival from the other end of the Democratic caucus. Rep. Heath Schuler of North Carolina, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog caucus, lost today’s vote, 150 to 43

“They know I am the person to attract the resources both intellectual and otherwise to take us to victory, because I have done it before,” Pelosi said in a news conference after the vote.

But in a caucus that prides itself on unity, 43 opposing votes marked a significant challenge. Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, incoming co-chair of the Blue Dog caucus, says that fiscal conservatives will be a force in the new Congress.

“The message the American people sent is that they are tired of partisan bickering and want us to work together,” he said. “The Blue Dogs may be smaller, but we still have a responsibility to put the economy back on track and rein in deficits.”

Outgoing majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, widely viewed as a likely replacement for Pelosi as leader, slipped back into the No. 2 leadership role as whip. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the outgoing whip, dropped his bid to keep the post, after Pelosi created a new one for him, assistant leader.

Michele Bachmann's weekly classes

The challenge for Boehner is managing a historic, 60-plus freshman class and the power shifts they could provoke with the Republican caucus

In an unusual move, Boehner added two leadership positions for the freshman class in an otherwise stable leadership team. Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia moved up to majority leader. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the deputy whip, was elected whip. And Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas was elected GOP Conference chair, after token opposition from House tea party caucus chairwoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who dropped out of the race for the No. 4 post Wednesday night.

“I intend to have a strong voice within the conference,” says Congresswoman Bachmann, who is organizing weekly classes on the Constitution to educate members on how to keep campaign pledges to ensure that Congress acts in line with the Constitution.

“It’s a great way to focus our minds before we start the week. You will see these [freshmen] members forged in the fire of the election will be unlikely to diminish that commitment.”

IN PICTURES: Election Day 2010

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