Dems jockey for position in Judiciary fight

Dems jockey for position in Judiciary fight
© Getty Images

When House Democrats return from their Thanksgiving break on Tuesday, they’ll have to address one unforeseen issue: how to replace embattled Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' McConnell: Reparations aren't 'a good idea' This week: Democrats move funding bills as caps deal remains elusive MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) as the ranking member on the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

The Michigan lawmaker said over the weekend he was temporarily stepping down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel amid allegations of sexual harassment. That allowed Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), next in line in seniority, to assume the role of “acting” ranking member.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenAnn Coulter offers rare praise for Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib Democratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration California Democrats unveil redistricting reform bill after Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering ruling MORE, who like Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Trump: I don't have a racist bone in my body Ocasio-Cortez responds to fresh criticism from Trump MORE is a veteran California Democrat, is also making a play for the top slot on Judiciary.

Both Nadler, a 13-term lawmaker, and Lofgren, a 12-term lawmaker, have been holding fundraisers and cutting checks to court fellow House Democrats, sources said.

Lofgren's office said the lawmaker is "interested in running" for ranking member.

“Zoe enjoys wide support among the caucus — geographically and among senior and more junior members,” said one House lawmaker who backs Lofgren. “I certainly wouldn’t say that Nadler is a lock to be ranking member."

“She’d have to ultimately go to the caucus,” the lawmaker said. “I think a lot will be decided in the next 48 hours when we reconvene.”

According to Democratic Caucus rules, a vacancy in a ranking member slot due to death, retirement or resignation shall be filled within 30 days of the vacancy.

But Nadler allies point out there technically is no “vacancy," since Conyers still remains a member of the Judiciary panel and has only temporarily stepped aside as ranking member while the Ethics Committee investigates potential wrongdoing.

These Nadler allies say there is no precedent for a Democratic race in the middle of a congressional session for “acting” ranking member.

The senior Democratic aide emphasized that the rules governing a race to replace Conyers are “murky.”

“There’s no precedent for the Conyers situation,” the aide said Monday. “This is a gray area.”

To trigger a race now, some aides argued, Democratic leadership would need to forcibly remove Conyers from the committee or he would need to resign.

Conyers, 88, who chaired the Judiciary Committee from January 2007 to January 2011, has given no indication he plans to leave the panel, which has jurisdiction over such prominent issues as law enforcement, immigration and gun control.

Along with the House Oversight Committee, it could also handle impeachment proceedings, underlining its potential importance in the next Congress.

“I think it’s going to come down to Pelosi’s discretion how things move forward,” said one Democratic chief of staff who’s been following the developments.

A Nadler-Lofgren battle would be reminiscent of the 2014 fight between Reps. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — White House withdraws controversial rule to eliminate drug rebates | Grassley says deal on drug prices moving 'very soon' | Appeals court declines to halt Trump abortion referral ban MORE (D-N.J.) and Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooDemocratic chair: Medicare negotiating drug prices not moving before August House bill targets use of Pentagon networks for child pornography Bipartisan House duo unveils amendment to block Iran strike without Congress's approval MORE (D-Calif.), who vied to become the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee after then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was retiring.

Pallone was more senior, but Eshoo, another long-serving Bay Area Democrat, was backed by Pelosi and the Democratic Steering and Policy committees.

In the end, seniority won out, with Pallone defeating Eshoo 100-90 when a vote was put to the full caucus — a blow to the Pelosi political machine.

The deference to seniority carries with it the thorny politics of race, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and other Democratic minority groups have long advocated for keeping that tradition intact to empower their members.

Six of the CBC’s veteran members, including Conyers, served as ranking member of a committee in the 115th Congress. So Lofgren would likely need to win over some CBC members if she has any shot at beating Nadler.

“It’s not just the CBC; the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC)], all of them sort of feel like there was this guarantee that if they did their time and they worked hard and they stayed put that they’d have a shot,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “And having someone come along behind them and pick and choose doesn’t sit well with a lot of them."

“It plays out not even just for their members,” the aide added. “It plays out in the committee votes in general where you’ll often see the CBC and CHC and others back the next in line because they’re the next in line, even if they’re not necessarily the strongest candidate.”

A behind-the-scenes battle between Nadler, 70, and Lofgren, 69, was brewing months before the Conyers allegations were made public.

Last spring, Lofgren was the sole member of the Judiciary Committee to vote against a bipartisan bill that would give President Trump, not the librarian of Congress, the authority to appoint the head of the U.S. Copyright Office.

That pitted her against every other member of her panel, including Conyers and Nadler. Before the bill came to the floor in April, Lofgren circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter urging a “no” vote.

“This bill takes the authority to appoint the Register of Copyrights away from the Librarian of Congress and gives it to the President, who chooses from a non-binding list of nominees created by the House, Senate and Librarian of Congress,” Lofgren wrote in the letter, which was co-authored by four former CBC chairmen and Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonFormer Sanders aides launch consulting firm Minnesota AG will defend state's abortion restrictions despite personal views Hillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups MORE (D-Minn.), deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

“HR 1695 takes the appointment away from Dr. Carla Hayden and gives it to President Donald J. Trump.”

Hayden is the first African-American to serve as librarian of Congress, and some Democrats viewed Lofgren’s move as a way to break with Nadler and align herself with the CBC on a racially charged issue that, until now, has flown under the media’s radar.