New chairman of Democratic caucus outlines his agenda

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) will become chairman of the House Democratic Caucus today, bringing with him plans to focus more on regional issues and give rank-and-file House Democrats a greater role in weekly caucus meetings.

In an interview with The Hill last month, Clyburn said he planned to invite the Democrats’ 12 regional representatives to help drive the agenda at caucus meetings and ensure member attendance.

“I will be focusing more and more on those regions for other things outside of elections,” Clyburn said. “Once or twice a month, we’ll have meetings focusing on those regions. We won’t have guests; we’ll just have members talking to members.”

Clyburn, 66, contended that lawmakers still have much to learn from each other, especially on regional issues. He cited water quality as an example.

“People think that water issues are unique to the West, but we have them too. We’ve got lots of water; it’s just not good water.”

Yet some observers were skeptical that putting more emphasis on smaller, regional issues is the right move in a crucial election year. With critical elections looming in November, a Democratic leadership aide argued, Democrats should stay focused on larger issues.

“The flow and topics of caucus meetings have always been and will continue to be driven by the major issues of the day and what business the caucus as a whole needs to discuss,” the aide said. “In an election year, this will undoubtedly be major issues before Congress and major political matters needing to be discussed within the caucus.”

The regional representatives played little role in caucus activities under the leadership of Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the outgoing caucus chairman, who will be sworn in to the Senate today.

Menendez was known for carrying a timer to caucus meetings to ensure that each member’s remarks were brief. Clyburn is expected to take a more lenient approach.

Clyburn also plans to use the regional representatives to encourage members to attend the meetings. Most caucus gatherings draw about 100 members, roughly half of the 205 House Democratic representatives and delegates.

The caucus chairman’s primary responsibility is planning and chairing the weekly caucus meetings, as well as organizing periodic issues conferences.

Clyburn had been vice chairman of the caucus, the fourth-ranking leadership post, since 2002.

A number of Clyburn’s staffers will move over to the caucus office with him. Yelberton Watkins, chief of staff in Clyburn’s personal office, will stay in his current position while taking on new duties as chief of staff to the caucus. He replaces Ivan Zapien, who will serve as chief of staff in Menendez’s Senate office.

Jaime Harrison, Clyburn’s policy adviser, will become executive director of the caucus, replacing Andrew Kauders, who will become a senior adviser to Menendez.

Clyburn’s Washington communications director, Lindy Birch, will fill a newly created caucus position, director of outreach, in which she will serve as a liaison to Democratic groups off the Hill. Burns Strider, a policy adviser to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), will serve as the caucus’s policy director. Strider and Clyburn worked together on Pelosi’s Faith Working Group.

The caucus’s communications director, Matt Miller, will have the same title in Menendez’s new office. His old position has yet to be filled.

With the departure of Menendez, Clyburn becomes the only lawmaker from a minority group in Democratic leadership. He served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) from 1998 to 2000.

As both a CBC member and a member of leadership, Clyburn has at times served as a negotiator between the two groups, a role he will likely reprise as caucus chairman.

One member of the CBC, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), has been in leaders’ crosshairs recently after missing several important budget votes. Asked whether leaders should punish Towns by, for example, bumping him from the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, Clyburn was circumspect.

“To the extent that people did not know the consequences, I think that we as leaders of the party have to accept responsibility,” he said, alluding to the possibility that Towns had not been aware of the consequences of missing votes. “But I think it’s important for the leader of any group to be able to exert leadership, and sometimes it requires the meting out of some discipline.”

Nonetheless, Clyburn said, members are now well aware of the consequences of missing key votes without good justification.

“There are things today that are very clear that were not as clear” before the budget vote, he said.

On a lighter note, Clyburn is considering changing the breakfast menu at caucus meetings from “doughnuts and bagels” to “shrimp and grits.”