Democratic insiders are predicting that a small group of party centrists and vulnerable incumbents will abandon Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) in next month's Speakership election in an effort to distance themselves from the liberal California lawmaker.
Some knowledgeable insiders suggest the vote could amount to the largest defection from one party's candidate for Speaker since nine Republicans deserted Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) in 1997, amid swirling ethics allegations against the Georgia lawmaker.
"There's little doubt in my mind that there are a lot of Members who are weighing how they are going to deal with this vote for Speaker," said one senior party strategist, who indicated that "multiple" Members have sought out his advice on the matter. "A number of people are saying grace over this together."
But some centrists, such as Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), have signaled that they will support Pelosi in the largely symbolic vote at the beginning of the 108th Congress.
"He's as firm for Pelosi as [a moderate Democrat] can be," Bishop spokesman Selby McCash said.
Nevertheless, one senior Democratic aide noted, "For many people, they consider [a vote for Pelosi to be] political suicide."
Already Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a member of the party's conservative Blue Dog Coalition, has indicated that he will once again back Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in the vote for Speaker.
Insiders say there is little chance Pelosi will receive votes from other conservatives such as Reps. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) and Ken Lucas (D-Ky.), who only recently flirted with switching parties. Neither Hall nor Lucas could be reached for comment this week.
A senior Pelosi aide noted that in every Congress there tends to be one or two Democrats who vote against the party's candidate for Speaker, but indicated that no one has yet "detected any evidence" of any significant opposition to the California lawmaker.
"If it's a political problem for some people then it's something we'll have to discuss with them in the weeks to come," the aide said, while indicating it is the leadership's "preference" - not its demand - that Members back Pelosi.
"We're not here to kill people," the aide said.
Uneasiness about Pelosi - but specifically with her liberal credentials - has been evident among moderate Democrats since the California lawmaker was first elected to the leadership as the party Whip.
First Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and later Reps. Martin Frost (D-Texas) and Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) all sought to challenge Pelosi's climb through the leadership ranks by tapping this anxiety and suggesting that she would serve as a useful symbol for Republicans hoping to paint the Democrats as a party of intransigent liberals.
That message would appear to have some traction in the Caucus. In spite of an 11th-hour start, Ford received 29 votes in his leadership matchup with Pelosi last month.
In fact, many party strategists doubt that Pelosi will pose a problem for Democrats seeking re-election in 2004, in spite of her ideology.
Bob Doyle, a political consultant who has worked with a number of party moderates, noted that voters are most likely to make judgments about the Democrats from observing the party's nominee for president, not from its leader in the House.
Doyle, who has often in the past clashed with party leaders over ideology, said moderates are likely to find reason for optimism in Pelosi's reign as leader.
"My belief is that she will see [the next two years] as a tremendous challenge, and will go out of her way to find a leadership agenda that will be good for these people," Doyle said.
GOP strategists did in fact seek to link conservative Democrats such as Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Rodney Alexander (La.) to Pelosi in the just-completed election cycle. Both candidates won, but insiders suggest that neither is expected to back Pelosi for the Speakership.
At least one outside group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which promotes tax cuts and other conservative economic policies, has begun an effort to undermine Pelosi's tally - the Speakership election is a recorded vote - by seeking to pressure Democrats elected from relatively conservative districts.
"If Nancy Pelosi wants to take radical positions, that is her own business, but she shouldn't lead other Democrats down the same path to economic and political oblivion," CSE said in a press release this week.
CSE indicated it has targeted 14 moderates, who are identified on the campaign's Web site, http://www.notpelosi.com. They are Bishop, Ford, Hall, Lucas and Taylor, plus Reps. Marion Berry (Ark.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Brad Carson (Okla.), Bud Cramer (Ala.), Chris John (La.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Max Sandlin (Texas) and Charlie Stenholm (Texas).
CSE is likely to find that some of those targeted are not at all susceptible to whatever pressure is brought to bear. Berry, Peterson and Sandlin, for instance, are longtime Pelosi allies who supported her publicly through her first forays into leadership politics.
Bishop, who is someone who has to rely on Pelosi's goodwill for a seat on the Appropriations Committee - or, alternatively, to take over for her as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee - is a more recent ally.