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Ranking member contest is early test of Pelosi's power in new Congress
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a shoo-in to keep her spot as the top House Democrat in the next Congress. But another intra-party election this month - the contest for ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee - could be an early gauge of the power she'll wield over her caucus for the next two years.
Pelosi is aggressively endorsing Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) over Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) for the seat, releasing a letter this week, her third of the year, lauding her close ally and fellow Californian as "a driving force" behind the Democrats' innovation and jobs agenda.
But her highly public patronage - unusual for a leader who typically operates behind the scenes on such delicate political matters - bucks the seniority system that many Democrats, including her top lieutenant, would prefer to honor.
"I have historically been for the ranking member, the senior member, if that member is capable and able, and if that member has contributed significantly to the legislative product," Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier in the year. "I think Frank Pallone has done all those."
The contest is shaping up to be the political equivalent of a heavyweight bout. It features two well-respected veterans vying for the top Democratic spot on one of Congress's most powerful committees; it's split the top Democratic leaders; it's captivated the caucus in a post-election cycle when most leadership posts and committee assignments are a foregone conclusion; and the outcome could reverberate well beyond the vote - especially if it's taken as a referendum on Pelosi's influence, the seniority system, or both.
Aides on all sides of the debate emphasized that committee elections tend to proceed outside of the leadership realm, as members weigh a long list of factors.
Still, some Democrats say Pelosi, by going so far out on a limb to promote Eshoo, has to some degree made the race a test of her own power in the wake of a midterm election rout that's given the Republicans their largest House majority since 1929.
"Normally these things are what they are. Each race is kind of its own thing, and I think this would have been the same ... if Pelosi hadn't invested herself so heavily," said one senior Democratic aide.
"In many respects members are making up their minds on a number of other factors," the aide added. "But I think there definitely is an element of, 'Why am I going to take Pelosi's person when she's lost us three elections in a row?'"
Pelosi's most recent endorsement letter downplayed the significance of seniority in deciding committee races, saying it should be "a consideration [but] not a determination."
But that notion has spooked some in her caucus. Indeed, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) met Wednesday night for a three-hour dinner where the focus was the issue of committee seniority, the Crew of 42 blog reported Thursday.
The CBC has a clear and vested interest in the issue; members of the group are poised to become ranking members on seven different committees in the next Congress - if seniority is honored.
One of those senior members, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, is being challenged by Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who is the lowest-ranking Democrat on the panel.
Such jumps tend to be rare - and many Democrats want to keep them that way.
"The Democrats have a long history of not passing over seniority when the person is competent," said a second senior Democratic aide. "Usually it's over policy, it's over competency, so a lot of members have just fallen on the tradition of seniority."
Not everyone, however, feels that way. A third Democratic aide noted that there are plenty of ambitious junior lawmakers eager to move up the committee ladder more quickly than tradition would dictate. For those members, the high-profile race between Pallone and Eshoo might be a place to send a strong message that seniority doesn't trump everything else.
"I know a lot of young guys who are anxious to move up, where seniority might not behoove them," the aide said.
During her weekly press conference on Thursday, Pelosi volunteered yet another endorsement of Eshoo. While Pallone is "a very lovely man," she said, Eshoo is "a perfect fit to take us into the future."
Pelosi said she has spoken with a number of Democrats about the Energy and Commerce race, but only in the course of routine calls congratulating members on their election victories - and only when those lawmakers bring it up.
"Some of them, maybe fewer than 20, have asked me what I had thought," she said. "I have spoken to a few."
Pallone has been quiet on the issue of Pelosi's role in the race, but he issued a short statement after the midterms expressing confidence in his odds.
"After traveling the country to support my colleagues in a challenging election year for Democrats, I am in a very strong position to win their support and assume the Ranking Member position in the next Congress," he said in an email.
Eshoo's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Pelosi has been largely successful in past efforts to buck seniority when it comes to choosing committee heads. She won a huge victory in 2008 when she backed Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in his triumphant bid to unseat then-Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who was thought to be too cozy with the auto industry to be an effective Democratic voice in the climate change debate.
She scored another win in 2010, when she helped Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) hop over now-former Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) as ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
And she was victorious again in 2012, when Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), with Pelosi's backing, defeated the more senior Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) for the ranking member spot on the Appropriations panel.
Pallone is currently the third-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce panel, while Eshoo is ranked fifth. They're vying for the ranking member spot that will open up with Waxman's retirement at the end of the year.
Dingell, the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, is also retiring, and fourth-ranked Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.) is not seeking the seat, having been on leave for much of the cycle to tend to his sick wife.
A caucus election to decide the winner is expected next week.