Panel Seats Doled Out as Jefferson Waits

Posted March 16, 2007 at 6:44pm

A handful of House committee seats were redistributed by leaders of both parties last week, even as embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) is still awaiting a decision on his Homeland Security assignment in the face of continued Republican opposition.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the third-ranking Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was removed from the panel last week to open a slot for freshman Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). A resolution approved March 12 by unanimous consent took Burton off the panel.

GOP sources familiar with the Steering Committee said the move was intended to bolster Buchanan’s re-election bid and not meant as a slight at the Indiana lawmaker. A spokesman for Burton said that leadership asked him to step down and he obliged, in part because his assignment on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee also has jurisdiction over some veterans’ issues.

“It was nothing personal at all,” said one GOP aide familiar with the decision.

Buchanan won a narrow victory against Democratic candidate Christine Jennings, who continues to dispute the election results and is seen as a potential candidate for a rematch in 2008.

According to Buchanan, there are more than 95,000 veterans in his district. A seat on the Veterans’ Affairs panel potentially could bolster his standing back home, and Buchanan welcomed the assignment.

“As a Member of Congress, one of my most important duties is to ensure that our vets receive the health care and benefits they have earned,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), meanwhile, has reclaimed a slot on the exclusive Energy and Commerce Committee. Blackburn was bumped from the panel when Republicans lost the majority, but she was reassigned to the committee after the recent death of Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) created a vacancy.

As a result, Blackburn gave up her seats on the Homeland Security and Financial Services committees. Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) was placed on Financial Services, and freshman Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was put on Homeland Security.

Additional recent GOP assignments also include Rep. Dean Heller (Nev.) to Education and Labor, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) to Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.) to the Science and Technology Committee.

As for Jefferson, his contested assignment to the Homeland Security remains unresolved and Democratic leaders have offered no timeline for a decision. “It’s still pending,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), last week. “We’re still talking to try and find some agreement.”

Jefferson had asked Pelosi for a seat on Homeland Security because it has broad jurisdiction over issues facing his district, which was battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Pelosi agreed and the Democratic Caucus unanimously approved Jefferson’s assignment earlier this year, but Republican leaders said they would object to the unanimous consent agreement and force a potentially embarrassing and politically uncomfortable roll call vote on the matter.

Jefferson is under federal investigation, and a related FBI raid of his home reportedly found $90,000 in cash in his freezer — a fact that has dogged Jefferson despite soundly winning reelection in November. Republicans argue the ongoing investigation, and the cash, are reason enough to prevent the Louisiana lawmaker from sitting on a panel privy to national security information.

Democrats counter that Republicans are hypocritical because they have seated Members who are under federal investigation as well. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) is under investigation by the Justice Department but remains the ranking member on Appropriations. Furthermore, Lewis is being investigated for matters that fall directly under his committee’s jurisdiction.

Democrats also have pointed out that Republicans let then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) sit on Appropriations in the 109th Congress even after he was indicted by a Texas grand jury in a case that still has not been resolved.

In contrast, Jefferson was removed from the Ways and Means Committee last year in an effort spearheaded by Pelosi, largely because the investigation involves issues that fall under that committee’s jurisdiction and there was a clear conflict of interest.

Jefferson said last week that he has not had any contact with leadership on the issue. His spokeswoman said he was not considering pulling his name from consideration. “He would be pleased to be on” the committee, said Remi Braden-Cooper.

Jefferson took part in a Feb. 28 committee hearing on reforming the Federal Emergency Management Agency but has not participated in any hearings since then. House rules forbid him from participating in markups or offering amendments in committee unless he is an official member of the panel.

Democrats could bow to GOP pressure and revoke his committee assignment or they can put the resolution on the floor and let the full House vote on it. GOP sources said last week that there was no chance GOP leaders would back down and consent to the assignment without a vote. Republicans, and some Democrats, are confident it would fail, but Jefferson still retains strong support in some segments of the Democratic Caucus, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus.

There are no statutory deadlines for committee assignments, and a Member does not have to sit on any committee, so Democratic leaders are not facing any time crunch on the issue. Jefferson currently sits on the Small Business Committee.

Meanwhile, the rosters of the joint committees on printing and the Library for the 110th Congress also were set last week.

Each bicameral panel is made up of members of the House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Control of the panels alternates between the chambers every Congress. The Senate set its membership for the joint panels earlier this month.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who serves as chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, also will chair the Joint Committee on Printing and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) will be ranking member. Other Members include Reps. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Feinstein will serve as chairwoman on the Joint Committee on the Library and Bennett will serve as ranking member. The panel will be rounded out by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and Reps. Ehlers, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

John McArdle contributed to this report.