By Shane D’Aprile - 04/07/11 10:15 AM EDT
There is skepticism on Capitol Hill about President Obama’s decision to appoint Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) as head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The Florida lawmaker is respected and well-liked in the Democratic Party, but there is concern that her dual role as DNC chairwoman and House member opens the door for tensions.
“I think she’s at the disadvantage of having to run a big organization and then being in a situation where she has a big part of her schedule that she can’t control,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) told The Hill. “I admire her energy, and out of all the people in Congress, I think she’s the one who can do it. But it ain’t easy.”
In keeping her seat in the House as she heads to the DNC, Wasserman Schultz will be the most direct conduit between President Obama and House Democrats — a relationship that’s had its fair share of ups and downs over the past two-and-a-half years. Some House Democrats privately complain that Obama didn’t do enough to save the House from changing hands last year and are still upset with him for the deal he struck with the GOP on tax cuts in the lame-duck session.
Elevating a sitting member of Congress to the chairmanship of the national party is something Democrats haven’t done since 1995, when former Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) served as co-chairman of the DNC. Observers say it’s a bit of an experiment given Wasserman Schultz’s high profile in the lower chamber.
The move is also a bit of a gamble for Wasserman Schultz. While her name ID will undoubtedly increase in the 2012 cycle, it’s unclear how accepting the DNC post will affect her leadership aspirations in the House.
Some have previously speculated Wasserman Schultz could someday become the House’s top Democrat. In an interview with The Hill last year, Wasserman Schultz cited then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as her role model.
It remains to be seen whether Wasserman Schultz, who will replace 2012 Senate hopeful Tim Kaine at the DNC, will keep her post at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), where she serves as one of five committee co-chairmen.
DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said Wednesday that no final decisions have been made, noting that she isn’t slated to take the reins at the DNC for close to a month. Still, it’s highly unlikely she could retain any position within the DCCC’s hierarchy.
Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who served two terms as DCCC chairman, praised Wasserman Schultz as an “excellent choice” for the post. Still, he added, “The question is, How hard is it to do this and be a member of Congress at the same time?”
From his own experience, said Frost — also a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog — it’s no easy task.
When he ran the DCCC, Frost said he had to rely much more heavily on his congressional staff both in his home district and in Washington, pointing out his fundraising and travel obligations for the party. He also forged an understanding with colleagues on the House committees on which he served that he couldn’t always be present for hearings and other committee-related duties.
Wasserman Schultz dismissed any concerns Wednesday over her ability to juggle both jobs, saying, “I’m a mom with three kids, so I know how to multitask.
“There’s nothing more important than making sure that I effectively represent my district,” she said, adding that “the best way that I can do that is to make sure that we reelect President Obama, so that we can implement [his] agenda.”
However, there will be times when House Democrats break from Obama between now and the 2012 election. For example, a significant portion of the House Democratic Caucus is expected to oppose Obama’s new effort to pass a trade deal with Colombia.
Wasserman Schultz, 44, serves on the Democratic steering and policy committee in the House. That, said one Democratic member, will likely add some pressure on her to be responsive to member complaints about the Obama administration.
“I’m sure she’ll spend some days getting an earful from [Democrats on the floor],” said the Democratic member, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the interplay between the White House, DNC and House Democrats. “I don’t think anyone here thinks she can’t do both, but there will be some questions to sort out.”
There are also the strategic considerations, given the sometimes uneasy dynamic between the DNC and the DCCC. For one, the party committees compete for donors. That is no small factor, given that Wasserman Schultz has carved out a reputation as a prolific fundraiser who can boast of solid relationships with high-profile donors.
Then there’s the question of how much the DNC’s 2012 strategy will line up with Democratic efforts to take back the House majority.
When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean chaired the DNC, his relationship with then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel was notoriously awful. The relationship between Israel and Wasserman Schultz is considered quite strong, though it could be tested.
“There are historic tensions between members of Congress and the DNC,” Israel said. “Many of those tensions are because of the lack of familiarity with both sides. But now, you have someone who understands the demands of both, so she can build bridges.”
Wasserman Schultz said the Democratic leadership in the House has “worked hard to work with the administration on coordinating our efforts and our agenda” and that she expects to further those efforts as head of the national party.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” the Florida Democrat said. “Making sure that we reelect the president is going to help us reach our goal of winning 25 seats to win the majority back in the House.”
Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other high-profile Democrats praised Wasserman Schultz on Tuesday in a flurry of press releases. The DNC later touted the rave reviews Wasserman Schultz had attracted.
McDermott clarified his remarks Wednesday afternoon, telling The Hill, “Clearly, some of the press would like some kind of fight in the Democratic Party. [Wasserman Schultz] is going to do a phenomenal job.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) called Wasserman Schultz “a brilliant choice” for the position, characterizing her as “a great spokesperson,” “a fantastic fundraiser” and an energetic presence who “will be all over the country.”
Schakowsky said she thinks the move holds a clear benefit for House Democrats, who will now have better access to — and communications with — the DNC.
Mike Lillis and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.