Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.) may have the shortest chairmanship in the young history of the House Democratic majority.
House Democratic leaders were scrambling Wednesday to fill a vacuum at the top of the Ways and Means Committee after Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) surrendered the gavel in the wake of an ethics wrist slap. And at least temporarily they were forced to hand the job to Stark, next in line on the panel behind the embattled New Yorker.
The leaders original plan to keep the chairmanship in Starks hands met stiff resistance Wednesday from committee members who feel the unpredictable Californian is too great a liability to helm the powerful tax-writing panel. After huddling for several hours Wednesday, panel members broke in the early evening with no decision and planned to reconvene in the morning.
Stark officially became the acting chairman on Wednesday after the House recognized Rangels resignation as chairman, and, according to the chambers rules, confirmed that the California Democrat now serves as his replacement.
But the 78-year-old Stark has a reputation among his colleagues as a loose cannon with a history of off-color remarks including calling then-Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) a little wimp and a fruit cake and accused then-Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) of being a whore for the insurance industry. But thats not all. Stark also has ethics troubles of his own and, recently, health problems, which sidelined him from 22 percent of House votes last year the fifth-worst participation record in the chamber.
On Wednesday morning, Stark told Ways and Means Committee members that he would only assume the chairmanship on an interim basis and not seek to keep it beyond this year, sources familiar with that session said. Even that arrangement, however, sparked enough unease that the panel continued to huddle throughout the day to discuss its options.
In the early afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) paid a visit to the committees first-floor room in the Capitol to pitch a plan that would split power between Stark and the third-ranking Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), according to sources briefed on the meeting. The idea, these sources said, was to mollify committee members concerned about Stark while still preserving the partys revered seniority system.
Pelosis proposal got a lukewarm reception, and it appeared that panel members were still trying to find a single consensus candidate to rally behind. Members hope is to settle on a candidate and bring that name to the full Democratic Caucus for an endorsement. If the panel cannot make a decision internally, the question would be thrown, wide-open, to the full Caucus a potential food fight that top aides are desperately hoping to avoid at a time when the party is trying to rescue its domestic agenda.
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