For most Dems, Stark was a non-starter

Lawmakers speaking publicly about the changes seconded Stark’s (D-Calif.) statement that he withdrew as acting chairman because he wanted to retain his Health subcommittee chairmanship. But they told a different story behind the scenes.

“Stark was a non-starter for about 95 percent of this caucus,” one Democrat said.

“And it's not about ethics or California or anything else. It’s about Stark. He doesn't respect other members or have the respect of other members.”

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Stark is known for making controversial and eccentric remarks. He called Blue Dog Democrats “brain-dead” last year and in 2007 had to apologize on the House floor for saying former President George W. Bush had sent troops to Iraq to get their “heads blown off for his amusement.”

Stark was the next in line for the post in terms of seniority, but some panel members recoiled at the idea of his leading the committee. Democrats on the panel Stark was set to take over threatened to oppose him.

“He wouldn’t get the votes — on anything,” one lawmaker told The Hill.

As a result, Stark abruptly resigned as acting chairman of the panel on Thursday, just a day after he was set to take over from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who left the position while the House ethics panel investigates him.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced in a caucus meeting that the new chairman would be Rep. Sandy Levin, a liberal Democrat from Michigan who has led the caucus on trade issues. Levin had been seen as the front-runner to take over from Rangel before Stark appeared to have the gavel in his grasp.

Lobbyists expressed hope that the Ways and Means Committee would be strengthened with Levin as chairman. The panel is widely thought to have been weakened by Pelosi, who is seen as setting committee policy out of her office.

It grew even weaker because of Rangel’s ethical clouds.

“You had a situation where the power has eroded,” one lobbyist said.

When former Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) ruled the roost, he told the Speaker what the committee’s business was, this source said. Under Rangel, that was completely reversed.

Levin is a mild-mannered member, but is respected by lawmakers and seen as thoughtful and driven to find solutions. That respect could help Levin carve out some independence, though he could also be limited by his position as an acting chairman.

Ways and Means members endorsed Levin for the position at a caucus meeting on Thursday and sang his praises later in the day.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a panel member, said Levin is extremely well-liked among members on the panel and within the caucus.

Levin was hit hard by the death of his wife of more than 50 years from breast cancer in 2008, Davis said. Levin worked through the personal tragedy, deepening the respect committee members already held for him, Davis said.

The quick departure of Stark — House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) called him “the shortest-[serving] chairman in the history of the Ways and Means Committee” — created another public-relations headache for Pelosi.

Some Democrats suggested the game of musical chairs was handled by design.

Only by allowing Stark to see for himself the fervor his chairmanship would cause was Pelosi able to simultaneously neutralize Stark and quickly stand up for the wishes of the caucus, said one Democrat.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” this Democrat said.

Pelosi was able to avoid having the question of the chairman fall to the Steering Committee by getting a resignation letter from Stark. Under House rules, that gave the chairmanship to Levin, the next in line for the position by way of seniority.

“The seniority system was acknowledged once [Stark] said he didn’t want it,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), an influential member on Ways and Means.

But Pelosi also endured 24 hours of chaos that distracted members from a key vote on a jobs bill and the ongoing healthcare debate.

While Stark on Thursday insisted he gave up the acting chairmanship because of his desire to hold his subcommittee chairmanship, he had expressed an interest in moving up in 2008 if there was an opening for the chairmanship.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who is next in line for the chairmanship in seniority after Levin, suggested it would be difficult for any member to turn down the position.

Asked if he would like to be chairman, McDermott smiled and said: “There isn’t anyone in this chamber who doesn’t want to be chairman of Ways and Means."