Rep. Edolphus Towns’s (D-N.Y.) surprising decision to step aside and let someone else take the most senior Democratic post on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has sparked a heated contest for the top spot.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the third most senior member of the panel, announced a run for the top post within an hour of Towns’s announcement Tuesday evening. Towns was expected to throw his support to Cummings, but just after midnight, he instead endorsed Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the second most senior member of the committee and a fellow New Yorker.
“I support Carolyn Maloney to become ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee," he said. "She is next in line on the committee, she has the seniority and competence to serve the caucus well.”
Even before Republicans won back the majority in the midterm elections, Democrats had been urging Towns to give up his gavel and allow Cummings to take the lead role on the committee. Cummings, a combative but shrewd senior member, could go toe-to-toe with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the aggressive incoming GOP chairman who is expected to launch a slew of investigations into Obama administration policies and programs, Democrats privately argued.
Towns and Cummings are both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, so handing the gavel to Cummings would maintain the number of CBC members in leadership positions.
Maloney, however, is not backing down. She sent a letter to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday touting her achievements and noting that she would be the first woman to serve in the minority’s top spot on the committee.
“I have a strong record of digging deep into the issues, asking tough questions, and fighting back. I am the second ranked Democrat on the Committee after Chairman Towns and would be the first woman to serve as Ranking Member of this Committee," she wrote.
Cummings also came out swinging Tuesday night, although he declined to say why he was more qualified than Maloney.
"I'm for me. I'm not against anybody," Cummings told reporters.
He said he would fight any efforts by Issa to go on "fishing expeditions" against the White House.
"We will go toe-to-toe on everything," Cummings vowed.
He also said he had not discussed his bid with the administration. "It's not the White House's business," he said.
A GOP aide said Issa won't be deterred from his oversight responsibilities no matter who the top Democrat on the committee is.
"Issa has demonstrated time and again that he does not shy away from confrontation when faced with the decision between a philosophy of inaction or one that advances his aggressive oversight agenda," the staffer said. "Quite frankly, the Democrats have a choice — they can either make a political statement by selecting Cummings and take their intention to obstruct legitimate oversight or they can reaffirm their commitment to constructive oversight by selecting someone with an extensive body of work on the Oversight Committee in Carolyn Maloney."
In a sign of Cummings’s strong support on the panel, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who had initially mounted a challenge to Towns right after the election, threw his support behind Cummings for the position less than an hour after Towns announced his decision to step aside.
“Even before I announced my candidacy, I made it clear to members across the caucus that I thought that Congressman Cummings would be able to meet the challenge, and that if he was a candidate, I would support him,” Kucinich said in a statement.
Kucinich also said his bid “has never been about” his own “personal advancement.”
“It has been about protecting the oversight process from abuse,” he said. “Mr. Cummings is well prepared for the challenge. Tomorrow, I will recommend to the Steering and Policy Committee and to the Democratic Caucus that they choose Mr. Cummings as Ranking Member.
“I have accomplished what I have set out to do, and that is to make sure that Democrats will have a very strong hand in the oversight process,” Kucinich said.
Issa made a name for himself challenging Towns on several controversial issues, including the Countrywide VIP loan program. His spokesman, Kurt Bardella, said the contest for ranking member of the panel was “an internal matter” for the Democratic Caucus to decide.
“We’ll let that process run its course,” he said. “Chairman-designate Issa looks forward to working with whoever the Democrats select to be the ranking member."
Towns’s office announced his decision in a brief statement Tuesday afternoon.
"After much thought, Chairman Towns today made the decision not to seek the ranking member position on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee,” said spokeswoman Jenny Thalheimer Rosenberg.
—This story was updated at 6:33 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., and Dec. 15 at 7:54 a.m. and 9:54 a.m.
Russell Berman contributed to this article.