Democrats to Fill Key Panel Slot

Posted May 13, 2008 at 10:51am

The monthlong Democratic vacancy on the House Energy and Commerce Committee could finally get filled next week.

The exclusive seat has sparked frenzied jockeying among at least a half-dozen Democrats, but leaders wanted to see the results of the two most recent special elections — including Tuesday’s contest in Mississippi — before making a decision on the slot.

“We wanted to have a full picture of what’s available and who’s asking for what,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is tentatively set to meet next week to decide on the slot and hand out committee assignments to Rep. Don Cazayoux (La.), who won a special election earlier this month, and Travis Childers, if he emerged victorious in Tuesday’s race in Mississippi.

The Energy and Commerce seat has been empty since early April, when Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.) stepped down from the panel. Wynn, who lost a primary, said he wanted to avoid conflicts of interest as he prepares to quit Congress for a job with a law and lobbying firm later this month.

The committee assignment is a prize. With broad jurisdiction over the energy, health, telecom and travel industries, the panel offers its members an enviable perch for both legislating and fundraising.

The contenders for Wynn’s seat represent a geographic cross-section of the Caucus. Outside observers said Rep. Doris Matsui (Calif.) has an inside track thanks to her Golden State connection to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But other leading contenders can also use the map in their favor. Freshman Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.) is considered a top pick for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a fellow Marylander, since he would keep the slot in the hands of a home-state colleague.

Freshman Rep. Zack Space (Ohio), meanwhile, has the backing of the Democrats in the Buckeye State’s delegation. Those seven lawmakers noted in a recent letter to Pelosi that the state lacks representation on the panel, down from the three Ohioans who served on it in the previous Congress. K Street Democrats watching the process also pointed out that Space hails from the same region as Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.), though Dingell has not publicly endorsed any candidate.

Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (Virgin Islands) has been endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are eager to see Wynn’s successor pulled from their ranks. Other candidates mentioned for the seat include freshman Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Ron Klein (Fla.) and Peter Welch (Vt.).

The Steering and Policy Committee, which Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) co-chairs with Rep. George Miller (Calif.), has yet to set a date for next week’s hearing. Once the panel makes its pick for the seat, it must be ratified by the full Democratic Caucus.

Competition for the seat will likely outlast the race, since at least two additional panel slots will open next year with Rep. Darlene Hooley (Ore.) retiring and Rep. Tom Allen (Maine) challenging Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

“It’s OK to lose if you lock in first rights for next year,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “The contest for second and third is just as important.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to name Rep. Gene Green (Texas) to chair the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, a gavel Wynn wielded until he stepped down.