By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; A03
House Democrats elevated Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), a pro-union, anti-free-trade liberal who is a close ally of the auto industry, to chairman of the Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.
Levin's ascension settles an internal party squabble and serves as a rebuke to House Democrats' seniority system, as Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) was in line to chair the powerful panel with authority over tax and trade issues. But rank-and-file Democrats on the committee rebelled because Stark, also 78, has a history of intemperate remarks and has an undisclosed illness that has made it difficult for him to be on hand in recent weeks.
Levin's younger brother, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairs the Armed Services Committee, creating a familial powerhouse. Congressional historians could not recall another instance of brothers chairing congressional committees at the same time.
Sander Levin stressed the temporary nature of his elevation, telling reporters after a Democratic caucus meeting Thursday morning: "I think you know my close relationship with Charlie. At this point I'm acting chairman."
"Under the circumstances, I could not think of anyone that could serve the country, the Congress and our committee better," Rangel told reporters.
House rules dictate that in the event of a chairmanship vacancy in the middle of a session, the next-most-senior lawmaker gets the gavel. But Stark's hold on power lasted one day, as committee Democrats rejected the idea of another controversial leader at the helm of such a key committee.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and other junior members of Ways and Means helped push Stark aside, according to aides familiar with three days of closed-door conversations this week. Van Hollen told his committee colleagues that Stark would be pilloried for his history of sharp-tongued remarks and that the panel needed to avoid further Republican attacks against its chairman.
Stark has publicly called a Republican on the committee a "little fruitcake," labeled another Republican a "whore for the insurance industry" and said that a group of fiscally conservative Democrats were "brain dead." He also has missed about 45 percent of House votes this year.