Impeachment looms over Dem choice on Judiciary

The Democratic battle to replace John ConyersJohn James ConyersPortland activist stages ‘reparations happy hour’ Conyers III won't appear on primary ballot in race to replace his father Conyers's son in danger of missing ballot in Michigan MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) atop the House Judiciary Committee will be settled this week, a contest hinging on factors of seniority and gender as much as policy.

Both Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLive coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Hillicon Valley: House Dems release Russia-linked Facebook ads | Bill would block feds from mandating encryption 'back doors' | AT&T hired Cohen for advice on Time Warner merger | FCC hands down record robocall fine | White House launches AI panel MORE (Calif.), the leading candidates to replace Conyers as the committee’s top Democrat, are veteran lawmakers from powerhouse states with long and consistent track records supporting liberal causes. 

“We’re both good Democrats,” said Lofgren. 

But in making their final pitch, the two lawmakers are carving out key distinctions each say makes them a better fit for today’s unique political environment. 

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Nadler, the sitting ranking member following Conyers’s resignation over sexual misconduct allegations, is touting his seniority and decades-long focus on constitutional issues, which could prove a boon to the Democrats if a “constitutional crisis,” in Nadler’s description, emerges from the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election meddling. Impeachment is among the host of consequential issues falling under Judiciary’s domain. 

“We are quite possibly headed into a major constitutional crisis … and we need our best constitutional lawyer and constitutional expert at the helm of the committee,” Nadler told The Hill in an interview. “And I’m widely recognized as such.”

Lofgren, meanwhile, is trumpeting her expertise in immigration law, a hot-button issue as Trump and the Democrats do battle over the fate of “Dreamers.”

She has also suggested that the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations makes the moment ripe for a woman to ascend on a committee that hasn’t had a female chair or ranking member since its inception in 1813. It is, she said in a letter to colleagues, “a watershed moment in the nation’s history.” 

“For 204 years, we’ve had an unbroken stream of male leadership on both sides of the aisle. We have this opportunity to change it,” Lofgren told The Hill last week in her office on Capitol Hill. 

“Everybody across the country is wondering — where’s the female leadership in business, in media, in government?” she added. “The fact that the opening was because of allegations of sexual harassment obviously makes the issue even more acute.” 

The Democrats will decide the winner by a closed ballot on Wednesday.

Both candidates bring a wealth of experience to the race. The 70-year-old Nadler, in his 13th term, has sat on every Judiciary subcommittee over the years, rising to become the top Democrat on three of those panels. The 12-term Lofgren, who turns 70 on Thursday, has held the top spot on Judiciary’s immigration subpanel for a decade and also chaired the Ethics Committee for a term.

Given the similarities, Wednesday’s vote may prove a referendum on a seniority system that many Democrats — including party leaders and influential groups like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — have historically fought to maintain. 

“That’s significant,” said Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottOvernight Health Care: Judge blocks Kentucky Medicaid work requirements | Trump officials consider cuts to ObamaCare outreach | House probes HHS office in charge of migrant children Top House Dems request broad investigations into Trump immigration policy Overnight Defense: Defense spending bill amendments target hot-button issues | Space Force already facing hurdles | Senators voice 'deep' concerns at using military lawyers on immigration cases MORE (D-Va.), ranking member of the Education Committee and an influential voice in the CBC.

Still, the House Democratic Caucus has grown younger in recent cycles, and there’s a growing appetite among the newer members to climb more quickly through the ranks of power — a dynamic that could act to dilute the weight of seniority as a deciding influence.

“Seniority is a factor, but when 60 percent of our caucus has been here six years or less, I don’t think it’s the factor that it used to be,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and head of the Progressive Caucus.

Since Conyers’s departure in the face of sexual harassment allegations, Nadler has led the Democratic charge against the Trump administration as it defends itself amid a series of investigations related to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In recent weeks, he’s been the presiding Democrat as the Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsConservatives moving to impeach Rosenstein soon: report Senators urge DOJ to probe whether Russians posed as Islamic extremist hackers to harass US military families The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies for Putin summit: 'He’s not my enemy’ MORE and FBI Director Christopher Wray. 

“People think I did very well,” he said. 

But Lofgren is downplaying the notion that the distant possibility of impeachment proceedings against Trump should dictate who replaces Conyers on the committee. While touting her own expertise on the subject — she’s the only member of Congress to have participated in both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings — she’s highlighting her immigration bona fides.  

“None of us knows what’s going to happen, and to assume that there would ever be an impeachment inquiry is way premature. We have no idea, so I’m not focusing on that,” she said. “I am focusing on my background as someone who could write an immigration bill.”

Nadler, responding to Lofgren’s calls for women’s empowerment, is promoting his own track record as a longtime defender of women’s rights, a record that recently earned him an endorsement in the race from abortion rights group NARAL. 

“I cannot change my sex, obviously, but I have been a leading and passionate advocate for all women’s rights, the right to choose, etc., for the last 30 years,” he said. 

Heading into the vote, Democratic leaders are taking pains to stay neutral — at least publicly — choosing to extol the virtues of both candidates without taking sides. 

“They are both very bright, very insightful, very judicious,” Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi wants party leadership elections post-Thanksgiving The Hill's Morning Report — Trump denigrates NATO allies, floats 4 percent solution Dems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions MORE (Md.), the Democratic whip, said last week. “They will both be excellent leaders, whichever one is chosen.” 

Hailing from San Francisco, House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTop Democrats request meeting with intel chief over sharing of classified info Overnight Defense: Fears rise over Trump-Putin summit | McCain presses Trump to hold Putin 'accountable' for hacking | Pentagon does damage control after NATO meet 'Our Cartoon President' takes on Mueller probe, NATO and Melania in second season MORE (Calif.) shares Lofgren’s regional interests but has also declined to weigh in. Lofgren, for her part, said she hasn’t asked Pelosi to do so.

“I do think I need to make this case on my own,” she said.

The race bears striking similarities to the 2014 fight between Reps. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneFCC passes controversial rule changing how it handles consumer complaints Overnight Health Care: Dem demands details on Trump-Pfizer pricing deal | Why both sides agree nominee could shift high court to right on abortion | DEA gets more powers to limit opioid production Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers eye ban on Chinese surveillance cameras | DOJ walks back link between fraud case, OPM breach | GOP senators question Google on Gmail data | FCC under pressure to delay Sinclair merger review MORE (N.J.) and Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley: Senate votes to save net neutrality | Senate panel breaks with House, says Russia favored Trump in 2016 | Latest from Cambridge Analytica whistleblower | Lawmakers push back on helping Chinese tech giant Overnight Finance: House panel to take up bill toughening review of foreign deals | Trump acknowledges Cohen payment on disclosure form | Officials set for new round of China trade talks Lawmakers raise alarm over Trump's move to help Chinese tech giant ZTE MORE (Calif.) for the top Democratic spot on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

That contest, which also featured two well-respected veterans with near-identical policy positions, was widely viewed as a proxy battle between Pelosi, who backed her Bay Area ally in Eshoo, and Hoyer, who supported the more senior Pallone. Pallone prevailed by 10 votes.

Both candidates — as well as party leaders — are hoping to avoid that divisiveness this time around.

“It’s not a slash-and-burn campaign, let’s put it that way,” Lofgren said.

That dynamic has not been missed by rank-and-file members, who say they’re happy not to be thrust into the midst of another dragged out, public display of party disunity. Grijalva said compared to the Pallone-Eshoo fight, the Nadler-Lofgren race is “less sanctimonious.”

“That’s very helpful — for everybody,” he said.

In the final blitz for support, both Nadler and Lofgren have huddled with the members of the CBC, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the New Democrats, and similar meetings are scheduled this week with the Blue Dogs and the Progressive Caucus. 

Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyA new urgency to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — GOP spars with FBI agent at tense hearing Washington big names celebrate launch of Hill.TV MORE (D-N.Y.) is supporting Nadler, her fellow Manhattanite, but had plenty of praise for Lofgren and predicted a close race.

“Both of them are smart, savvy, accomplished, experienced, and we’ll see,” she said. “We vote on Wednesday.”