WASHINGTON – Minutes before the roll-call vote for the next House speaker, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., gingerly sat down near the back of the chamber.
When his name was called, Altmire did not hesitate to stand and announce Heath Shuler, a congressman from North Carolina, as his choice.
There certainly was hesitation in the rest of chamber, however.
A flicker of annoyance passed over the face of outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slightly fidgeting in the minority leader's seat on the House floor.
Forty-one minutes and 434 votes later, Altmire was the first of 19 Democrats to voice their opposition to Pelosi, the largest public vote of no confidence for a party's nominee in more than 80 years.
Altmire’s symbolic vote against Pelosi was less a profile in courage than an in-your-face reminder that Democrats are fractured.
Although the media has focused on how the new House speaker, Republican John Boehner, must struggle to try to unite traditional Republicans with more outspoken Tea Partiers, quite a bit more action may take place on the minority's side.
“First, 19 Democratic members voted against Pelosi, which suggests that while she holds the favor of a large majority of her caucus, she does not have unqualified support,” explains Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown.
Second, those Democrats who support her tend to be like her – meaning that they tend to be long-serving liberals from safe seats, such as fellow California congressmen George Miller and Henry Waxman, Brown says.
This implies that she and her shrunken caucus members may take it upon themselves to become the Washington firewall for their party’s progressive wing.
They may not only do battle against House Republicans, Brown says, but also against President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both of whom likely realize that only by moving to the center and compromising with Republicans can they rack up some achievements to run on in 2012.
Democrats are about to face what all parties experience after losing: a very public battle between its factions over its ideological future.
Since Pelosi has not stepped off the political stage, this fight may not simply be an asymmetric power struggle between a party's officeholders and its outsiders or activists. It may become a more entrenched battle in which both sides have institutional arsenals and dedicated supporters.
Brown says that will make 2011 “a fascinating political year. Not only will it be the year we are likely to discover if the Republicans return to their small-government ways, owing to the pressure of the Tea Partiers, but it will also be the year when we discover how severely the Democrats' losses in 2010 cracked the party's unity on its 2008 progressive vision.”
On Wednesday, House members and the rest of the country watched Pelosi fall from being – by Brown’s ranking – the country’s second most powerful person to its fifth. (In order, those are the president, House speaker, Senate majority and minority leaders, and House minority leader; the vice president doesn’t make Brown’s top-five list.)
For two years before Obama's 2008 election, Pelosi fairly could be considered Washington’s top Democrat. Largely through her efforts, Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and were well positioned to win the White House in 2008, regardless of their presidential nominee.
Even now, Brown says, “Pelosi is not one to count out of the game.”
She and her House caucus may make it difficult for Obama and Reid to tack to the ideological center and to position themselves for the 2012 election.
From the House gallery on Wednesday, an onlooker could see Speaker Boehner shaking hands with and even hugging political foes such as ethics-plagued Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., while House minority whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., smiled and shook hands with new and old Republican congressmen.
The fractures among Democrats played out in more subtle body language: Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, D-Fla., had no fake smile on her face and offered only tepid applause.
And Pelosi’s trembling hands were the perfect symbol of the shaky ground on which Democrats stand today, having never recovered from 2008’s primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The Band-Aid that has kept them together – power in all branches of government – was peeled off by 2010’s midterm election.
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