Pelosi looms over contest for top slot on House Appropriations Committee

Abortion politics could roil the race for the top Democratic spot on the House Appropriations Committee, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) playing the role of a potential wild card.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) is challenging Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) for the plum post, which will become open next year after the retirement of Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), currently the ranking Democrat on the committee. The winner of the race will become the chairman of the powerful committee if Democrats retake the House this fall. 

Kaptur is next in line in seniority among members currently on the panel, but she has a mixed record on abortion rights, which has played an increasingly prominent role in spending debates over the last year. Lowey, a former chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), is emphasizing her support for abortion rights in private calls soliciting support from colleagues, a source close to the New York congresswoman told The Hill.

Kaptur, who last week defeated fellow Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) in a primary, has also clashed in recent years with Pelosi, who could exert considerable influence in the race. Kaptur joined with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to call for a delay in leadership elections after Democrats lost their majority in 2010, a move that threatened Pelosi’s grip on power. And earlier that year, Kaptur was one of the last holdouts to support the Democrats’ healthcare overhaul. Along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), she pushed for assurances that the law would not allow for government funding of abortion.

That past could complicate Kaptur’s drive for one of the most coveted positions on Capitol Hill.

In 2011, the question of whether the abortion provider Planned Parenthood would receive federal grants in appropriations bills nearly led to a government shutdown.

Republicans leaders in Congress pledged to keep up the fight, and the top GOP presidential candidates have also taken up the cause, making it more likely to come up again in future appropriations battles.

Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranDems face close polls in must-win Virginia Billionaire Trump donor hires lobbyists to help vets Lawmakers: Chaffetz has a point on housing stipend MORE (Va.), an appropriator who trails both Kaptur and Lowey in seniority, is also seeking support for the ranking Democratic position.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion-rights advocacy group, rates Lowey and Moran as “fully pro-choice” and Kaptur as “mixed-choice,” a spokeswoman said. The group does not take official positions for committee or leadership posts.

Both Lowey and Moran have been vocal in the recent debate over funding for Planned Parenthood. Moran last month issued a statement criticizing the Susan G. Komen Foundation for its decision — which was later reversed — to pull funding for the abortion provider. And Lowey joined other House Democrats last week in attacking Mitt Romney for saying he wanted to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood funding.

Kaptur’s spokesman, Steve Fought, defended her record on women’s rights and noted that she has come under attack in Ohio from conservative and anti-abortion rights groups because of her support for funding for Planned Parenthood. “She supports family planning,” he said. “She doesn’t support government funding for abortion.”

Kaptur was also critical of a Senate bill from Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees McCaskill outpaces GOP opponent by more than million GOP senators raise concerns about babies on Senate floor MORE (R-Mo.) seeking to overturn the Obama administration’s decision requiring that employees of religious organizations have access to contraception coverage.

Fought said Kaptur was only now focusing on the general election and on the committee race following her defeat of Kucinich in the primary two weeks ago. Unlike other candidates for the appropriations post, Fought said, Kaptur still faces a competitive race in November against Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber” after his star turn in the 2008 presidential election.

In her conversations with fellow House Democrats, Kaptur is talking about much more than abortion, Fought said.

“What she’s stressing is her experience and her expertise on the committee,” he said. “She’s just not conducting a one-issue campaign.”

Kaptur, 65, is the longest-serving woman in the House and a veteran of the Appropriations Committee. She was in line to become a “cardinal” in 2007 as chairwoman of the Agriculture subcommittee, but in an unusual move, she turned the post down in exchange for a lower-ranking position on the defense subcommittee. The switch prompted a critical editorial in the Toledo Blade, her hometown newspaper, labeling the 12-term congresswoman “a back-bencher” and noting her earlier delinquency in paying dues to the DCCC.

Pelosi’s voice could carry the day in the race, but she is not expected to weigh in for months, if at all.

A Democratic leadership aide downplayed tensions between Kaptur and the former Speaker, saying they have a good relationship. Pelosi has no plans to get involved in the Appropriations race anytime soon, and the aide said her message to candidates was the same as her message to Democrats in any leadership or committee campaign: It is up to them to make their case to their colleagues and to “go get the votes.”

While Democrats typically honor the seniority system more rigidly than Republicans, Pelosi has upended it in the past, most notably when she allowed Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to unseat Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in late 2008.

“Certainly seniority is a factor, but the caucus will decide,” the leadership aide said.

Fought said Kaptur’s relationship with Pelosi is “excellent” even though they are on “different sides of some issues,” such as trade. He said Kaptur planned to invite Pelosi to appear with her in Ohio — a critical election battleground — in the near future. “Nancy Pelosi has described Marcy as the conscience of the House, and they go way back,” Fought said.

This story was updated at 1:55 p.m.