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Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) isnt the only senior Democrat nervous about the challenge from Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) for the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel.
Several top Democrats backing Dingell argue that the contest, dividing House Democrats this week even as they celebrate their expanded majority, represents an assault on a long-sacred tradition in the Caucus: the seniority system.
Jitters about upending that tradition appear to be benefiting Dingell down the stretch with some of the most prominent members of the Caucus: his fellow chairmen, who are so far breaking for the Michigan lawmaker 6-2. The Democratic Steering Committee considers the issue today, and the full Caucus will vote on it Thursday.
Its a part of it but not the whole thing, Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said. The Massachusetts liberal, whose outspoken views put him more ideologically in line with Waxman, announced his support for Dingell this week.
But how that support will translate to a Caucus also stretched by ideological, geographic and issue-based loyalties is unclear, and Democratic insiders said the race still appears too tight to handicap, with only one full day left for the two contenders to make their cases.
Its a tough one. Its too close to call, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said.
For chairmen, this battle could be prelude to a more fundamental clash about their prerogatives. If Dingell is toppled, others could field challenges of their own. That would compound another nettlesome problem that remains on the books: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has preserved Republican-authored six-year term limits on chairmen.
Term limits and the seniority system together are definitely why Dingell is getting some of the support hes getting from chairmen, one senior Democratic aide said. They are generally pushing back on Pelosi and her taking some of their power away from them. ... None of them want to feel that if they dont do things [as] she wants them done, theyll be at risk of losing their chairmanship.
Pelosi has taken pains to distance herself from the fight over the Energy and Commerce gavel, but several top Democrats on and off Capitol Hill point out that she has not stepped in to stop it, either.
Looking beyond the Dingell fight, several chairmen said they will press to have the term limits stripped as House Democrats cobble together the rules package for the next Congress.
Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said she included the issue in a list of about two dozen other possible changes she recently sent to Pelosi for review and that it will be up to the Speaker to make the call. In recent months, Pelosi has signaled she is in no hurry to remove the limits.
We will deal with that issue when we deal with it, she told Roll Call in a June interview.
Broadly, a senior Democratic leadership aide argued that the Speaker has maintained close working relations with her chairman and kept them at the forefront of debates and negotiations with the Senate and White House.
But quietly, senior Democrats have frequently complained that Pelosi stepped on chairmens toes, an abrogation of Democratic tradition.