Towns's friends come to aid over possible leadership retribution

Several of Rep. Ed Towns’s (D-N.Y.) colleagues yesterday expressed displeasure that House Democratic leaders may seek to remove the 12-term congressman from his seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee following Towns’s absence at several important budget votes this spring and fall and his pivotal support of the Central America Free Trade Agreement in July.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.), a colleague of Towns in both the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Energy and Commerce Committee. Towns is the fourth-ranking Democrat on the panel. “He’s not the first member to miss important votes. I was not aware that there were any litmus tests for Democrats. If [leaders] are going to do that, they should make notice beforehand.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the former chairman of the CBC, was also discouraged by news of a potential ouster of Towns from Energy and Commerce.

“I would hope that she would not do that. Other members have done similar things,” he said, noting that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “knows my opinion.”

Other likely Towns allies were keeping mum yesterday, saying they had yet to speak to him personally about the issue.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the incoming chairman of the Democratic caucus and the highest-ranking CBC member in the House, declined to comment.

“I don’t have any thoughts about that. I’ve not talked to Ed Towns about that yet,” he said.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the current CBC chairman, echoed Clyburn’s comments.

“All I’m doing now is trying to understand the dynamic,” he said.

A House Democratic aide who supports Towns said the congressman was being singled out.

“He’s an easy target. He’s a safe seat. They can make an example of him,” the aide said.

“Are they going to do this to [Rep.] Melissa Bean [D-Ill.]?” the aide added indignantly.

Bean voted for CAFTA, but unlike Towns, she has been identified as a top Republican target in the 2006 midterm elections. Towns won with 91 percent of the vote in 2004.

Despite these protests, a House Democratic leadership aide argued that Towns’s absences have been egregious.

“Every absence we have is another tough vote that a Republican doesn’t have to take,” the aide said. “[Towns] didn’t tell leaders that he would be gone. Other members take great pains to make it to important votes.”

Towns is one of only two House Democrats to miss the vote on the budget reconciliation bill in November. The other, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), had been undergoing surgery. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) attended the November budget vote with an intravenous line still attached to his arm from a hospital visit. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) was suffering from the flu and also attended.

Pelosi previously has threatened to punish members by removing them from coveted committee slots, but she has never followed through on those threats. It was unclear Wednesday whether she would do so this time.

Such a decision would have to be endorsed in a meeting of the House Democratic Steering Committee. A meeting of the steering committee, which includes top leaders in the caucus, was scheduled for this afternoon but it was not expected to address the Towns issue.

Towns has been present for roll call votes so far this week.

Pelosi and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have made unity within the caucus a top priority.

Pelosi said Wednesday that she was confident that no member of her caucus would defect should the budget reconciliation conference report come to a vote this week, despite reports that Republicans were seeking to pick off a few Gulf Coast Democrats with offers of increased relief funds to handle the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

“Members have come to me and said, ‘This is what they offered, but I told them no,’” Pelosi volunteered yesterday.

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