Dem vice-chair campaign picks up

Some House Democrats are weighing whether to buck their party leadership and support a pension-overhaul bill in light of possible new provisions, such as targeted relief for airlines.

The three candidates vying to become the next vice chair of the House Democratic caucus kicked their campaigns into full gear late last week following news that Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the current caucus chair, would be appointed to the Senate.

The news came after a week of soul-searching among Democrats on the war in Iraq and Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) controversial proposal to redeploy troops as soon as possible.

Although sources said that divisions over the Murtha plan and the appropriate course of action in Iraq are likely to play only a minor role in the leadership contest, the race comes at a pivotal time for the caucus.

Two of the candidates, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and John Larson (D-Conn.), have been longtime critics of the war, having voted with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in opposition to the original 2002 resolution authorizing military force. A third candidate, Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), voted with the many moderates, including Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in backing the resolution.

Similar differences have arisen with Murtha’s proposal. Schakowsky, Larson and Pelosi are backing it, while Crowley, Hoyer and others have yet to be convinced, although they have thanked Murtha for fostering the debate. Crowley is an early co-sponsor of House Joint Resolution 55, which calls on the administration to come up with a timetable for withdrawal.

Heading into a closed-door meeting of House Democrats last week, Murtha buttonholed Crowley, advising him to “tell your friend Hoyer” to stop stirring up trouble, House sources said. The Washington Post had reported that morning that Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) had urged Pelosi a week earlier not to publicly back Murtha’s plan on the grounds that it would harm Democrats’ election hopes. She announced her support anyway.

Murtha went on to give an impassioned speech before the caucus castigating Democrats who disparaged other Democrats’ proposals and asserting that his plan was about “saving lives” not politics.

“He was nearly screaming when he said it,” recalled a House Democratic aide who was present at the meeting. “He was looking right at Hoyer, and a few times he looked over at Rahm.”

Crowley said his encounter with Murtha was not hostile.

“Jack and I, we have a good, fun relationship. He and I burst into laughter just moments after that,” Crowley said. “I’m my own person. No one individual pulls my strings. I pull my own strings. The reality is Jack has been an inspiration to our caucus. He has helped to move our caucus forward in this debate.”

Murtha has been receptive to an invitation by Crowley to appear at Madison Square Garden in February.

Murtha has been a strong supporter of Larson in the vice chair race, although with Larson trailing in the number of public backers — Larson has 18, Crowley 52 and Schakowsky 46 — some observers have contemplated whom Larson’s supporters will back in a potential runoff.

Asked to about his comments to Crowley, Murtha said only that he and Crowley enjoyed a friendship.

Murtha noted that his harsh comments to the caucus were designed to keep members focused on the substance of his proposal.

“What I don’t like to see is distraction from the substance,” he said. “I’m trying to save lives. It’s not some policy to win back the House. That’s not my mission. I was very upset that we’re distracting from the substance.”

The vice chair election will most likely take place the week of January 31, sources said, although the candidates have yet to meet with Democratic leaders to finalize those plans. Leaders are aiming to resolve the contest before a planned Democratic caucus retreat Feb 2-4.

Crowley sent a letter Thursday to undecided members of the caucus, touting his role in the Democrats’ whip operation, his work electing House Democrats in New York, his fundraising ability, and the perspective he gained having an immigrant parent and a racially diverse district.

“I will take the lessons I have learned of inclusiveness, pro-activeness, and base-building to our broader Democratic caucus,” Crowley wrote.

In addition to supporting Joint Resolution 55, Crowley proposed an amendment to last year’s State Department reauthorization bill that called for a plan for success in Iraq. Crowley is a member of the International Relations Committee.

Schakowsky was also communicating with her colleagues in the wake of the Menendez announcement. 

“We are really activating our whip team in a significant way,” she said. “A lot of people were waiting for the race to happen, saying ‘Let’s wait and see.’ Now that there’s a race, we have to ask in a very different way for people to make a decision.”

Schakowsky wrote to her colleagues yesterday, stressing her experience in grassroots organizing, her support of vulnerable Democratic incumbents and promising challengers, her “passion for Democratic principles and values,” and her industry.

“I can assure you that no one will outwork me when it comes to putting in the time and industry for the caucus,” she wrote.

Schakowsky also made mention of the potential for a second round of balloting in race between the two top finishers from the first round.

“If you are committed to [Crowley or Larson], I hope you will consider supporting me on a second round of voting, should it occur,” she wrote.

Schakowsky’s campaign chairman, Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), also wrote to colleagues yesterday, sounding many of the same themes.

“Jan is a tireless worker who is more interested in winning than grabbing headlines for herself,” Costello wrote.

Larson’s leadership team met last week and is scheduled to meet again today.

“This week is vitally important because it’s time to spend the last bit of face time with colleagues,” Larson said. “We’ll be meeting daily throughout this week.”

Murtha and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who are heading up Larson’s campaign team, are sending letters to colleagues this week, although in keeping with the secrecy of Larson’s campaign thus far, he declined to make the letters available.

“Jim Clyburn never published a name,” Larson said, referring to the current caucus vice chair. “That’s the strategy that we adopted.”

Larson said he did not believe the Iraq debate would play a role in the caucus race.

“I don’t think this race is based so much on any issue. It’s about what you can do to enhance caucus’s ability to be in the majority and what you can do to help members personally and politically,” Larson noted.