By Vicki Needham - 12/09/10 06:49 PM EST
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) fought back a challenge Thursday to win the ranking member’s spot on the House Ways and Means Committee.
In a 109-78 vote, Levin defeated Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) to remain the senior Democrat on the tax-writing panel.
The vote is a rare case of a full caucus rejecting a recommendation by a steering committee. Neal defeated Levin in a 23-22 vote by that panel on Wednesday night.
But there was a caveat. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) missed the steering committee, and said she would have cast the tying vote if she had been in attendance.
Known among his colleagues as a smart, hard-working, details-oriented lawmaker, the 79-year-old Levin is a champion of labor unions and had battled for automakers in the recently brokered U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement.
He’s generally been on the side of organized labor, though he broke with unions to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. He’s also split with the AFL-CIO and other unions on the South Korean trade agreement.
Levin has been the House Democrats’ leader on trade issues since they entered the majority in 2006, and has been a close ally of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the committee’s former chairman.
Rangel, who supported Levin’s bid, stepped down under an ethics cloud earlier this year, which led Levin to become chairman of the panel. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) was second in seniority to Rangel on the panel, but many Democrats opposed him becoming chairman.
Neal, 61, is known for his pro-business stance and his focus on tax issues, including simplifying the tax code. He was trying to jump over several other more senior members to capture the position.
Fellow lawmakers cited seniority and their working relationship with Levin as key factors in supporting him to lead Democrats on the committee.
Several letters of support for Levin also credited him with helping them win tight their re-election bids through campaign contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and traveling around the country on their behalf.
“He's smart, you can depend on him he's raised a lot of money and helped a lot of people, he has the seniority and he deserves it, he's earned it,” Waters said in explaining her vote.
Neal said he spoke with every member of the caucus in an attempt to win their vote and move into the ranking member's spot.
“I don't know how much more I could’ve done,” Neal said prior to the final outcome. “I stayed at it for a long time, I worked it hard and I was consistent.”
This story was updated at 4:53 p.m.