House Cleaning

Now that the congressional elections are over, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are turning their attention to the next big vote: the race to see who will replace Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) as the House Democratic leader.

After failing to help the party retake the House in four straight elections -- and after Democrats lost seats on Nov. 5 -- Gephardt announced today that he will not seek the post in the 108th Congress. Speculation about who will take his spot has consumed Washington for months, and the candidates, Reps. Martin Frost of Texas and Nancy Pelosi of California, haven't been shy about making their ambitions known -- and both made their intentions formal today.

As Democrats look for a new leader, lawmakers must decide what direction they want the party to head in. Frost and Pelosi offer different ideological, geographical and demographic choices. Frost is moderate, Pelosi is liberal. Frost is from Dallas-Fort Worth, Pelosi hails from San Francisco. Frost would be the highest-ranking Jewish leader in Congress, Pelosi would be the top-ranking woman. And Democrats know that whomever they pick now would be a likely choice for speaker should the party win back the House in 2004.

Political observers expect the vote -- which will be conducted by secret ballot on Nov. 14 -- to be close. Gauging a count is made more complicated because lawmakers sometimes commit to both candidates. But Pelosi's outspoken style and current position as the party's No. 2 leader may give her the edge in an era when Democrats are looking to contrast their message strongly with President Bush's.

Both candidates have leadership experience: Pelosi won a competitive race last year to become the House minority whip and has raised millions of dollars for Democratic candidates. Frost is stepping down as chairman of the Democratic Caucus -- the party's No. 3 position -- because of term limits; in that role, he oversaw what many party members considered a successful redistricting effort. He also headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1996 and 1998, when Democrats gained seats.

In addition, Frost enjoys the backing of Democrats who feel that Pelosi has gotten unnecessarily involved in intraparty politics this year. She endorsed Rep. Lynn Rivers, who lost in the Michigan primary to Rep. John Dingell, angering the House Democrats' dean and ranking member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Pelosi also stepped into the New York redistricting fight, initially supported Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) when questions arose about his relationship with intern Chandra Levy and went against Gephardt (and Frost) in opposing the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq (although more House Democrats supported Pelosi's position than Gephardt's).

Frost believes his ability to unite members of his party will help him win this election. "My colleagues look for several things in a party leader," he told Roll Call earlier this year. "They look for someone who understands the issues, [someone] who can articulate party positions and someone who listens very carefully to everyone in the caucus. That's the primary thing -- someone who is a consensus builder and someone who can help build toward a majority."

And history may be on Frost's side. In 1976, his mentor, then-Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas), defeated Pelosi's mentor, then-Rep. Phil Burton (D-Calif.), in the bid for whip. Frost also defeated Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), an ally of Pelosi's, for caucus chair in 1998, one of the rare defeats of a liberal by a moderate.

But Pelosi has three big bases of Democratic support: the California delegation, liberals and women. Also in her favor is the party's history of promoting its leaders to the next available job. Pelosi told The Dallas Morning News earlier this year, "I think I have done enormous work for the Democrats. I'll compare my credentials to anyone's in that regard." Pelosi's energy and fundraising prowess have made her popular, and Democratic Party women in particular want to see one of their own populating the leadership ranks.

Pelosi has shown her leadership skills by using some shrewd tactics as whip. She mended fences with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and his supporters after she beat him out for the post last year; she also made Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas) one of her chief deputy whips -- a move that could siphon support from Frost in the Texas delegation. And while Frost likes to talk about the 1976 race, the political scene has changed since then. There were more southerners in Congress at that time, and more Democrats from Texas in Congress than there are now.

Whoever becomes the new party leader on Nov. 14, though, will face a challenge that Gephardt could never overcome: giving Democrats control of the House for the first time since 1994. And after a divisive vote for party leader, Frost or Pelosi will need to unite Democrats to make that goal a reality.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is senior editor of the Prospect.