Pelosi to Prevail on Rule

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:42pm

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has been working behind the scenes over the past week to build support for a controversial Caucus rules change she’s pushing aimed at keeping Democrats unified on key votes.

Democratic Members and staffers said the leader, her staff and allies have reached out to waffling Members prior to today’s vote in an attempt to convince them to support the proposal, which gives the Steering and Policy Committee new power to approve powerful subcommittee and ranking members. Sources said they expect the Caucus change will pass overwhelmingly, likely on a voice vote.

“She’s just been explaining what the reasoning is,” said a Democratic leadership aide of Pelosi’s overtures to Members. “It’s not about trying to punish anyone, it’s about having accountability. It’s not directed at any one person. If someone has to take a difficult vote, we understand that.”

Pelosi is pushing to change Democratic Caucus rules to give the Steering Committee a vote on who serves as the subcommittee chairmen or ranking members on the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means panels. As it stands now, members of the full committees make that decision, with the full Caucus giving final approval.

Senior Democratic aides and Members said Tuesday a handful of lawmakers remain unhappy about the proposal and worry Pelosi is working to consolidate her power and attempting to fix a problem they argue doesn’t exist within the Caucus. Those sources said they estimate between 20 and 30 Members are against the idea, but don’t expect they will push for a roll call vote or secret ballot at today’s meeting.

Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.), who opposes the move, said Pelosi personally reached out to him to try to convince him to support the proposal. Wynn drafted a letter to members of the Congressional Black Caucus outlining his concerns about the measure, which he believes is unnecessary given evidence Democrats are more unified than at any point in recent memory and pointing out that mechanisms already exist to remove a Member from a post.

“She talked to me last night,” he said. “She thought my fears were unfounded. She didn’t attempt to pressure me.”

Wynn joins several other Members including CBC members, conservative Blue Dog Democrats and others who believe the change is ill advised. Many worry the change could be used punitively and would hurt marginal Members who must occasionally buck the party on votes to secure their re-election.

Backers, however, argue the change ensures togetherness in the Caucus and increases accountability in the leadership process. The Steering panel determines most committee assignments and should oversee subcommittee chairmen and ranking member positions, those supporters argue.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.). “It’s important we work as a team.”

But Rep. Cal Dooley (Calif.), a retiring New Democrat and vocal critic of the change, said he continues to worry the change will lead to jockeying and dealmaking as Members attempt to improve their position within the Caucus and give Pelosi more control over Caucus leadership. He acknowledged that Pelosi’s office has reached out to him, but he hasn’t changed his mind.

“I think that it’s going to further contribute to problems within the Caucus,” Dooley said of the proposal, adding that he believes it will pass because Pelosi has “successfully created the perception that it’s no big deal, that it’s not a major change.”

The rules change was born out of November’s controversial Medicare vote in which 16 Democrats bolted the party to support the Republican proposal to add a prescription drug benefit to the program. Rather than punish those defectors, Pelosi sought to change the rules to deter future rebelliousness on key votes, sources said.