Breaking with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested Tuesday that the seniority system should dictate the outcome of the race for top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
But the Maryland Democrat made clear he supports the seniority system that traditionally governs committee posts, lending a tacit endorsement to the higher-ranking Pallone.
"I'm not going to get into this publicly, other than to say that I have historically been for the ranking member, the senior member, if that member is capable and able, and if that member has contributed significantly to the legislative product, to the party's efforts," Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol.
"I think Frank Pallone has done all those," he added, "but I'm not going to get into it further than that."
Hoyer's comments came a few days after Pelosi surprised Capitol Hill by publicly endorsing Eshoo for the ranking member spot.
Pelosi, who has led the Democrats since 2003, almost never makes such overt endorsements, preferring to operate behind the scenes. She said she'd intended to stay invisible in the Pallone/Eshoo contest as well, "but since so many of you have asked, I am writing to let you know why I support Anna."
Pelosi's public support for Eshoo lends a boost to her California colleague, though it's hardly an indication Eshoo is the shoo-in for the seat. Indeed, after the Democrats won the House in 2006, Pelosi publicly backed the late-Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who was vying with Hoyer to become her top lieutenant. Hoyer won handily, 149-86.
Pallone is currently the third-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce panel, while Eshoo is the fifth. They are battling for the seat that will be vacated next year with the retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the current ranking member.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, is also retiring, and fourth-ranked Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.) has been on an extended leave to tend to his sick wife.
A Democratic Caucus election to decide the contest will take place after November's elections.