Rank Would Guide Pelosi As She Chose Chairmen

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

If Democrats win control in November, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has decided to award committee chairmanships based almost entirely on seniority, ensuring that the House would feature far more minority faces, and some liberal firebrands, in key posts.

But, mindful of the growing power of an expanding band of Democratic moderates and conservatives, Pelosi has also vowed that she would keep her chairmen on a tight leash, according to leadership aides and current and former Democratic lawmakers. She has assured conservative Democrats that she would personally temper the legislative impulses of her most liberal chairmen while keeping close tabs on the investigations that could dominate the final two years of the Bush presidency.

House Democratic leaders and their would-be chairmen are careful to say in public that they are focused only on the Nov. 7 elections and have not begun to plan for a possible takeover. But privately, Pelosi has had several conversations with the senior Democrats on the House's most powerful committees, as well as with conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, who have sought assurances that they will have a voice after the polls close.

"We've inched our way back toward the majority by replacing Republicans with conservative-to-moderate Democrats, and you're going to see a lot more of that November 7," said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), one of the leaders of the Blue Dog coalition. "Do I believe Blue Dogs will have a greater voice in the Democratic leadership? You betcha."

The Blue Dogs could hold the balance of power in a Democratic House. With 37 members, the group already has clout; 16 Democratic candidates have the Blue Dogs' endorsement, and a dozen of them could win. That would give them numbers surpassing the Congressional Black Caucus's 43 members.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog co-chairman, promised that the group would be "a moderating influence on any excesses that might be brought forth by other wings of the party."

"That's not a threat," he said. "That's just the facts of life."

For Republicans in this campaign season, however, the face of the Democratic Party is not the Blue Dog wing but what Cardoza called those "other wings." Committee chairmanships would appear to be an unlikely campaign issue, but Republicans are using it with gusto, especially to rally dispirited conservatives to the polls.

Republicans have attacked Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, as a tax hiker. The Republican National Committee called Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the would-be chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, "a liberal partisan" who "would launch criminal inquiries into the Bush administration."

In Topeka, Kan., last week, Vice President Cheney singled out three of the most liberal Democrats in the House as foils -- Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the would-be Judiciary Committee chairman; Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), who is in line to take over the Government Reform Committee; and Barney Frank (Mass.), the senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee.

"In all the decisions that will come in the next two years, it's going to matter a great deal which party has the majority on the floor and the gavel in committee," Cheney said.

In a debate between six-term Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.) and his challenger, Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D), Hostettler warned that if Democrats take over, "Charlie Rangel will be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee."

Some Republicans have steered clear of those lines of attack. House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said he has "worked closely" with Waxman, the ranking Democrat.

Misgivings exist in Democratic ranks as well. Several moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of fraying party unity, specifically mentioned two members: Conyers, who has already laid out what he says are grounds to impeach President Bush, and Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.), a senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, who was impeached and removed from his federal judgeship in 1989 for conspiring to take a $150,000 bribe and give light sentences to two convicted swindlers.

Hastings has already become something of a campaign issue. At a recent event featuring Democratic challenger Heath Shuler, an aide to his opponent, Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), called out that a Democratic majority would let Hastings into the inner sanctums of the intelligence world.

Such concerns have placed Pelosi in a squeeze between conservative Democrats, who could be responsible for swinging the balance of power next month, and minority lawmakers who are demanding that Pelosi respect the seniority system.

For now, she is largely siding with the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses, whose ranks would provide at least half a dozen chairmen by seniority. Three black lawmakers have already received pledges: Pelosi aides gave strong assurances that Conyers would become Judiciary Committee chairman and that Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) would become chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. In a private meeting, Pelosi told Rangel that he would take over the Ways and Means Committee.

In the same meeting, she assured Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) that she would back his return to the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a post he used in the 1980s and 1990s to become one of the most powerful and feared figures in Congress.

She also told Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) that he would have her support to take back the reins of the Appropriations Committee.

But there are caveats. Parts of Dingell's former domain that Republicans took away from the energy committee, such as oversight over the Securities and Exchange Commission, will not be returned, leadership aides said. And Pelosi has made it clear that she wants Waxman, on the Government Reform Committee, not Dingell, to take the lead on investigations.

The intelligence committee remains the biggest problem. The senior Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), wants the chairmanship and has the strong backing of the Blue Dogs. But personal friction between Harman and Pelosi virtually ensures that Harman will not remain on the committee, according to lawmakers and aides close to Pelosi.

Hastings would be next in line, but conservative Democrats are adamantly opposed. Skipping over him would be problematic, however. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) was the last black lawmaker in line for the sensitive committee chairmanship. But to lure Harman out of retirement in 2000, Pelosi and then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) promised she would get the top Democratic slot on the panel. Bishop was eased off the committee with a plum seat on the appropriations panel.

In light of that history, skipping over Hastings might cause a real rupture with the Congressional Black Caucus, Pelosi aides fear. Tensions between Pelosi and the caucus flared earlier this year when she successfully pushed to remove the ethically tainted William J. Jefferson (D-La.) from the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson is under federal investigation as part of a bribery and corruption case.

Leadership aides have begun floating a compromise, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Tex.), the third-ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, hoping that a minority choice would soothe bruised feelings.

"Reyes would be a fabulous choice," said one Blue Dog lawmaker. "It would show no lack of sensitivity to minorities, and it would be a compromise that would take care of a lot of issues."

The Congressional Black Caucus, headed by Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), is having none of it, however.

"The CBC would not look kindly on that," said caucus spokeswoman Myra Dandridge. "The first order of business of the CBC chairman would be to protect his members, and Alcee Hastings has the seniority, the knowledge and the experience to be chairman of the intelligence committee."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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