WASHINGTON — The petite woman in regal purple edged her way behind a raucous mob of reporters awaiting the next speaker of the House, a brutal midterm election behind her and an unclear future ahead.
Attuned for four years to the comings and goings of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, few in the press klatch noticed — and none followed her. The spotlight and the microphones now awaited not the California Democrat, but Ohio Republican John Boehner.
Change at the top, the populist battle cry in the 2010 midterm elections, already has taken hold around Pelosi in the final days of her history-making speakership. Dethroned by an angry electorate and defending her role leading the Democratic caucus, Pelosi gavels in the lame duck session of Congress this week in a state of political purgatory, suspended between the past and future.
She'll still be House speaker — second in line to the presidency — and a remnant of the Democrat-driven 2006 and 2008 elections. But she's not yet the agreed-upon leader of her party in the next Congress, burdened by the successful GOP campaign that made her the face of unpopular government programs and soaring unemployment.
Pelosi stunned Washington last week by announcing that she will run for Democratic leader even in the minority. Doing so set up a painful standoff for second place between lieutenants Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina. About two dozen House Democrats, including a few of her allies, have expressed a preference for someone else as their leader next year, if not outright opposition to her candidacy. Two have urged Democrats to postpone leadership elections scheduled for Wednesday.
Late Friday, Pelosi sought to minimize any controversy. She announced that the leadership elections would, in fact, take place as planned and that should she be elected leader, she would nominate Clyburn to a newly created spot third in line in the leadership. That averted a showdown with Hoyer.
Post-election polling suggests that getting a nod to lead the Democrats for the next two years would be easy compared to the job that lies ahead: winning back the electorate's confidence and favor in time for the 2012 elections with the same leadership lineup and a more liberal caucus. And doing it all in an atmosphere in which 54 percent of Democratic-leaning adults say they want the party to move in a more moderate direction, according to a poll taken Nov. 4-7 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Pelosi views the opposition as the normal course of leadership elections — there's always a protest vote — and maintains that she has the support to win. Indeed, nobody viable has surfaced to challenge her.
"We didn't lose the election because of me," she said in an interview on National Public Radio. "They asked me to run. I'm running."
Pelosi didn't specify who asked her to run — her allies called House Democrats in the days after the rout to ask obliquely how they'd like the leadership lineup to look next year. Some responded by asking her to lead the caucus, according to Democratic officials who have knowledge of the calls and requested anonymity in order to comment on private conversations.
The White House has publicly stayed out of the matter, though no one argues with the notion that Pelosi has been effective pushing difficult elements of President Barack Obama's agenda through a more diverse caucus than the one controlled by liberals taking office next year.
She is one of the party's top fundraisers. And Obama might even consider her useful in a good cop-bad cop routine during legislative fights leading into the 2012 elections.
Asked half a world away on Friday whether he's interested in new faces leading the Democrats in Congress, Obama gave Pelosi an endorsement.
"I think Speaker Pelosi has been an outstanding partner for me," Obama said Friday in Seoul.
Back in Washington later in the day, 31 women in the Democratic caucus sent a letter to colleagues urging them to vote for Pelosi, the nation's first female speaker.
"Nancy Pelosi has borne the brunt of unfair criticism and attacks, but her record of accomplishment speaks for itself — particularly to women," they wrote. "At a time when the incoming majority is expected to threaten the progress we have made for women and families, we need Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader to help us stay unified and fight back."
Those developments followed an uptick in public dissent from Democrats from conservative districts who distanced themselves from their liberal leader on the campaign trail and survived — but who watched dozens of like-minded colleagues go down in defeat after Republicans linked them to Pelosi.
"You know, sometimes in this business it's difficult to know when to move on," said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J.
Pelosi says she's trying to do that, but not in the way her critics suggest.
In the days since the Nov. 2 bloodbath that cost the Democrats at least 60 seats, Pelosi has been spending time in friendly environs. She was in Washington all week, holding a thank-you party for her staff and another for groups that were supportive during the election.
And making calls, lots of calls.
"I suspect by now she's probably reached everyone in the caucus," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a close Pelosi ally, said Friday.
Pelosi left Washington on Friday to spend some off-the-radar time with her daughter and grandchildren in New York, but the visit would have to be brief. She was due back in Washington on Sunday for less pleasant business: spending time over two days with the 85 freshmen Republicans who had won their seats, and the majority of the House, in large part by savaging her.
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