Thompson, Peterson push for committee positions

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has assured Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) that he will be the next ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, filling the slot vacated by retiring Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), say aides to both Thompson and Pelosi.

But the fate of Rep. Collin Peterson’s (D-Minn.) bid to assume the top Democratic position on the House Agricultural Committee remained in doubt yesterday, according to leadership and Democratic aides.

“It’s an open question,” a well-placed Democratic aide said, referring to who would replace defeated Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas) as the top Democrat on the agriculture panel.
patrick g. ryan
Rep. Pelosi

Both Thompson and Peterson were derelict in paying their full party dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle, leading to some speculation that Pelosi would bypass them for more prolific, but less senior, fundraisers to prove that she was serious about requiring all members of her caucus to meet their dues obligations.

Thompson, who has been the second-ranking Democrat on the homeland-security panel, explained yesterday that his failure to pay his dues stemmed from a primary challenge and that he intends to pay the full amount in the next cycle. Peterson’s office declined numerous requests to comment on this story.

As the ranking member on a select committee, Thompson is directly appointed by the minority leader. The ranking position on the agriculture panel, however, must first be approved by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, co-chaired by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), which will determine Peterson’s prospects either today or tomorrow. After the steering committee approves ranking members, the names go to the full caucus for a vote in January.

The Steering Committee, composed of roughly 50 members, 15 of whom are directly appointed by Pelosi, will also take shape today, a Democratic aide said. Pelosi can either make a strong push for Peterson or allow the committee to weigh the pros and cons of promoting a centrist who many lawmakers feel has not made the party’s success his top personal priority. Several aides and lobbyists said that there are hard feelings toward Peterson because he encouraged many fellow Democrats to vote for the Medicare prescription-drug bill last year.

But if Peterson is not given the top Democratic slot on Agriculture, he could decide to retire from Congress, leaving open a seat that Republicans might be in a better position to capture.

Thompson’s appointment as the Democrats’ point man on homeland-security issues ensures that a centrist African-American from a rural district will be an integral part of Pelosi’s leadership team. The Homeland Security Committee, if given permanent status, could play a much larger role in the coming Congress.

It also gives Thompson an opportunity to hire a more diverse staff, correcting what he saw as the lack of minority hiring during Turner’s tenure. “Diversity is important on any committee. We are no longer a country of one people,” Thompson told The Hill.

But some Democratic aides, strategists and lobbyists expressed some concern about putting Thompson in charge of a potentially high-profile committee. They said that Thompson has had a spotty attendance record on the committee he seeks to lead and that he was not overly enthusiastic about building relationships with the lobbying community on K Street.

A review of the committee records indicates that Thompson missed 14 of the 23 full committee hearings in the last Congress.

Thompson disputed any suggestion that he has failed to reach out to K Street but added that the onus for building relationships falls on lobbyists, too. He also emphasized his own perfect attendance record on his subcommittee, noting that it passed the only legislation from the entire committee that became law. “I am happy with the fact that I got some actual legislation passed,” said Thompson.

Thompson said he wants to work with Chairman Chris Cox (R-Calif.) to hold more field hearings and draw upon experts outside of the “Washington bubble” on how best to combat terrorism and protect the country’s communities.

And while Thompson said he looks forward to working with the majority, committee sources expect him to be more confrontational than his predecessor.

“In the absence of momentum by the committee, we will still have a strong Democratic agenda to put forward to the country,” he said.

“Clearly, there will be some partisan tensions from time to time, but Chairman Cox had a very good working relationship with Mr. Turner and he hopes to continue that with relationship with Mr. Thompson,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Cox.

“We all share a common goal, in safeguarding America from the threat of terrorism,” Johnson said.