Aiming high: Freshman Dems seek A-list panels

Rep.-elect Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) wants a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, the panel where all tax legislation must originate.

But Altmire, a college football star and congressional staffer who defeated Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), admitted that getting a seat on Ways and Means is a long shot. 

That’s because it is unlikely that the House Democratic Caucus will expand the size of Ways and Means, said a senior Democratic lawmaker, making it harder for newly elected Democrats to jump ahead of their second- and third-term colleagues. If the seating ratio remains the same, Democrats will have the same number of seats, 24, that Republicans have now.

Decisions about committee assignments would not be made until January, after new assignments are made to the 51-member Steering and Policy Committee, said a senior Democratic aide.

As they dole out committee slots, Democrats will have to balance seniority, geography and diversity with the needs of newly elected, vulnerable lawmakers.

The other wrinkle in determining committee assignments is the majority leader’s race pitting Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) against Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), both of whom serve on the Appropriations panel. Depending on the outcome of the race, Hoyer or Murtha could use committee slots to reward supporters. In the Republican majority, previous leaders, such as Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), were forced to give up their seats on the Appropriations panel. If Democrats abide by the same practice, there will be at least one open seat on the powerful spending panel.

House Democrats assigned to one of the five “exclusive” committees — Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Rules — can serve only on that panel. They are considered prized slots, in part because the panels put members in contact with industry and trade-association lobbyists, making it easier for lawmakers to quickly raise campaign cash.

The line for the exclusive committees, such as Appropriations, is “40 members long,” joked Rep.-elect Chris Carney (D-Pa.), who along with several new Democratic members is seeking a spot on the Appropriations Committee.

Murtha, the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, promised Carney during the campaign that he would help. 

“We are certainly doing our due diligence,” Carney said. “There are certainly some agriculture and some transportation projects, a lot of the roads [and] bridges need to be redone” after massive flooding last June. 

A representative from Pennsylvania’s 10th District has held a seat on the panel for the past 40 years, and two Pennsylvania Democrats, Murtha and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D), already serve on the panel. But a spot could open; Fattah will announce Saturday whether he will run for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007.

Still, there’s a waiting line for the Appropriations panel. California Democrats believe they are underrepresented on the panel — only two serve now. California Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Mike Honda have asked their colleagues for support to win a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) also would like a seat on the panel, as would Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who would be well positioned if Hoyer wins the majority leader race.

Freshman members are facing a similar issue at Ways and Means. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), elected in 2004, wrote Pelosi on Tuesday asking for a seat on Ways and Means, noting that there is only one woman and no Pennsylvanians on the panel.

Schwartz wrote Pelosi last month to hype her fundraising efforts for the party to help elect Carney, who defeated Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.).

Schwartz will face competition from another second-term lawmaker, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who wrote to members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee yesterday to “ask for your consideration and support for my appointment to the House Ways and Means Committee.”

“Since the departure of [former Rep.] Karen Thurman, there have been no Democrats from Florida … There is only one member from Region 8 (Fla., Ga., N.C. and S.C.) on the committee,” she added.

Democratic sources said the Energy and Commerce Committee could provide a great opportunity for freshmen. Democrats will gain five seats if the ratios remain the same, and there are three vacancies because one member of the panel ran for governor and another ran for senator.

There are obstacles at Energy and Commerce, too, because several second-term lawmakers have expressed interest in serving on the panel. And Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) might want to rejoin the panel if she is not allowed to serve another term as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.