The prospect of substantial Democratic defections from Pelosi on the first day of the new Congress comes amid a heated debate between liberals and conservatives about the party's future. Many liberals assert Democrats must reinvigorate core supporters by refusing to compromise with Republicans on key principles, while centrists argue they must tack to the middle to win over independent voters.
The divide is complicated by the fact that the party's losses disproportionately hit moderates, purging the ranks of conservatives who call themselves "Blue Dogs," a coalition that lost more than half of its members. Liberals who are Pelosi's natural constituency now make up a greater percentage of House Democrats.
Her decision to seek a new term as party leader has also set off a messy struggle between Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, currently the No. 2 Democrat, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the current No. 3.
Hoyer is widely viewed as the voice of moderate Democrats in leadership, although his list of public supporters includes powerful liberals. Clyburn is the most powerful African-American in Congress. The two are competing for the second-in-command position in the minority in a contest that has taken on racial overtones in recent days with the decision of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse Clyburn.
Democratic officials say Pelosi has urged Clyburn to bow out of the race and run for a lesser leadership job, with an additional promise of a newly created face-saving position on a key committee. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private discussions.
Kristie Greco, a spokeswoman for Clyburn, declined to confirm Pelosi's move, but said her boss remains a candidate and "The CBC wants to see this come to a vote."
Other Democrats, eager for a smooth transition, note that if Pelosi were to withdraw, it would avoid a face-off between Hoyer and Clyburn.
"It's still in play," Matheson said. But, he added, "without an alternative stepping up and saying, 'Vote for me instead,' it makes it a little more difficult."
Even the timetable for the selection of leaders has become embroiled in the controversy.