Much has been made of the challenges outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, is facing in her bid to become leader of what will soon be the minority caucus of House Democrats.

That’s silly.

There’s a good deal of grumbling about Pelosi, and some of it will translate into votes against her continued leadership. But she is not threatened by her likely challenger, North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog who has few friends or allies in the caucus. For the most part, the voters Shuler gets will be cast to protest the hasty process of choosing new caucus leadersas opposed to a genuine endorsement of a particular conservative Democrat or a broader conservative approach.

So the leadership fight is a sideshow.

Pelosi’s real challenge is coming from the House Ethics Committee, which has just handed her the task of dealing with the Charlie Rangel mess.

The veteran congressman from New York, who until this session controlled the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has been found guilty on eleven of the thirteen ethics charges brought against him.

The Ethics Committee must now recommend what punishment, if any, Rangel will face.

Presuming that there will be a punishment, the issue then goes to the full House, which must approve the committee’s recommendation. That’s where it gets sticky for Pelosi.

She must schedule the vote and deal with the reality that Rangel, a key player in the House until recently and a legislator with many friends and regional allies in the chamber, is not likely to accept the punishment easily.

“Fifty years of public service are on the line,” Rangel told the Ethics Committee members when he stormed out of a session Monday. “I want you to know that I don’t think it’s fair.”

Rangel said he did not have counsel and that the committee members made it difficult for him to be properly represented—despite the fact that he spent $2 million on lawyers. "I object to the proceeding, with all due respect, since I don’t have counsel to advise me."

If the twenty-term congressman decides to fight the punishment proposed by the Ethics Committee, it will be the stuff of high Capitol Hill drama.

The’s not the sort of drama Pelosi needs as she attempts to organize her battered caucus.

Thus, the outgoing speaker faces a far greater challenge from Rangel—an old ally—than from Heath Shuler or his backers. Can she get Rangel to accept a punishment? Is there room for a deal? Would a deal make Democrats look even worse? Or would it make an embarrassing scandal go away so that the caucus can focus on getting things done in what is already shaping up as a difficult lame-duck session?

These are issues Pelosi is going to need to resolve quickly and effectively. If she succeeds, she will have made her best argument for continuing as leader of what remains of the House Democratic Caucus.

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