New York Rep. Edolphus Towns’ abrupt decision not to seek the top Democratic slot on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee touched off a massive scramble for the job, splitting the Congressional Black Caucus as well as putting gender, regional and ideological politics into play.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (Md.), the Nos. 2 and 3 Democrats on the panel, respectively, are facing off today, hoping to garner the recommendation of the Steering and Policy Committee for the high-profile position opposite incoming Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
The battle has put the CBC in the spotlight. Seniority has traditionally been a rallying point for the CBC, and the caucus released a letter last week reaffirming its support for seniority when Towns faced a challenge from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). But with Cummings now in the running, CBC members have an uncomfortable choice to make: stand by their traditional fidelity to seniority or back Cummings, a former CBC chairman.
“We recognize the awkwardness of the position we are in,” incoming CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “However, we still must cling tenaciously to the system of seniority. ... We are not going to tweak it, amend it or temporarily suspend it.”
CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who declined to say whom she was supporting, reiterated that the caucus supports the seniority system.
“We stand by our statement,” she said.
Losing the ranking member slot would be another hit to the CBC, which has already seen its clout erode with embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) losing his perch earlier this year atop the Ways and Means Committee amid ethics issues.
Maloney has already lined up significant CBC support, including Towns, playing on the seniority issue.
“I’m a strong believer. Even when I didn’t have any, I supported seniority,” Towns said of backing Maloney. “She is the senior person.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), another CBC member who is on the steering panel, said she will be nominating Maloney for the slot.
Cummings, widely perceived as the preference of Democratic leadership and the Obama administration, is mounting his own counteroffensive with the help of fellow Maryland Democrats Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen.
Cummings said he wasn’t using race to garner support.
“When I got into this, Dennis Kucinich was running,” Cummings said. “Don’t lose sight of that. Dennis Kucinich would have skipped over me. Once I’m in a fight, I’m in it.”
Still, Cummings acknowledged he is in an awkward position given the CBC’s long-standing promotion of the seniority system.
Cummings said that despite the concern, he’s gotten support from several CBC members.
“They’ve told me how they feel about me. And remember, I used to be chairman of the CBC,” Cummings said. “They know me. They know what I stand for. At the same time, it’s not just the CBC. I have a broad base of support.”
CBC members Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said they support Cummings. Conyers, a past chairman of the Oversight panel, said Cummings is the strongest person for the job.
“I just think Cummings would be a much more powerful force,” Conyers said. “As past chairman, I know the power of that committee is tremendous.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield also pointed to Cummings’ strength in fending off Republican attacks as a key reason he backs Cummings.
The North Carolina Democrat said Tuesday night that it is important for a member of the CBC to maintain the position and that Cummings has the right background to go toe-to-toe with Issa.
“He’ll be able to stand formidably” against Issa, Butterfield said.
Other CBC members, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), said they had not made up their minds yet.
Maloney has been furiously whipping votes for the position, arguing that her seniority, gender and record fighting for Democratic values qualify her for the job.
Tuesday evening, Maloney chased down Rep. Tim Walz to try to get his vote, shouting “Walz! Walz!”
The Minnesota Democrat told Roll Call Wednesday he remains undecided but noted that Maloney was helpful with a railroad issue in Minnesota earlier in his career.
In a brief interview, Maloney noted her seniority and the fact that she had endorsed Towns before he dropped out.
“I’m a fighter,” she said, highlighting her record on core party principles.
She said her credit card bill of rights is saving consumers $10 billion a year, and Wall Street firms poured more than $1 million into her opponent’s campaign to defeat her.
As Democrats prepare to have new leadership on the powerful Oversight panel after two years under Towns, it is still unclear why he decided to walk away just a day before it appeared he had secured the job.
“This is a decision I made based on my own personal situation at this particular time,” Towns said.
Towns’ capitulation came as he was receiving pressure from Democratic leadership and the White House to step down amid concerns that he would not be able to effectively counter Issa’s expected zealous oversight, according to several Democratic leadership aides.
The White House maintains that the shake-up was an internal organizational decision made by the caucus.
“He’s talented enough to do it, but his personality is just not suited to being ranking member. It’s a knife fight every day, and he’s just a little more old-school,” one Towns ally said.
Towns’ future remains uncertain given his desire to return to the Energy and Commerce Committee. He was having a tough time securing the slot given the reduced number of positions Democrats have in the minority.
Towns took a leave of absence from the panel two years ago.
“He’s going to look to have the leadership live up to their end of the deal when he took his leave,” the Towns associate said.
Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.