Race for Ways and Means Gavel Heats Up on K Street

Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:10pm

The shadow fight for the Ways and Means Committee gavel is heating up downtown.

Capitol Counsel’s David Jones and John Raffaelli are chairing a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser next month where Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Richard Neal is headlining along with House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Their request for the May 12 event at Art & Soul: Contribute $5,000 to attend, $10,000 to sponsor and $15,000 to host.

The pair is also organizing a separate fundraiser featuring Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (Mich.) in June.

Jones and Raffaelli’s decision to host events with both Neal and Levin may say a lot about how K Streeters are hedging their bets when it comes to a potential contest next year for the Ways and Means gavel.

While Neal hasn’t officially launched a bid to unseat Levin, who took over for embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) earlier this year, the Massachusetts Democrat has certainly been making the rounds to shore up support downtown.

And while the pace of the political activity suggests a race is in full swing on K Street, it’s taking shape more quietly in the place where its fate will be decided — inside the Capitol.

Several Ways and Means Democrats said Tuesday they have yet to hear from either Levin or Neal seeking support.

“Right now, everybody is rowing from the same boat,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), a member of the panel.

But other lawmakers and aides are already sizing up the potential contenders. Levin, committee watchers said, needs to dispel concerns that his leadership style will be too much the professor, not enough the executive. And many said he has moved aggressively in the weeks since he secured the gavel to do just that.

“It’s in a holding pattern, but he’s not approaching the job that way,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. “He’s been very aggressive in tackling the issues we need to tackle.”

Levin has been largely untested as a chairman so far. But that’s about to change as the House prepares to take up tax extenders legislation.

K Streeters say they are closely watching how the Michigan Democrat deals with the challenges of moving the legislation this summer and whether he’s open to business’s needs.

Levin Chief of Staff Hilarie Chambers said her boss is directing his attention to the immediate job at hand, leading the Ways and Means panel and raising money for vulnerable Democrats.

“It’s premature to focus on anything that happens after the election,” Chambers said. “The focus has to be on the issues and the work we’ve got to get done.”

There are other forces working in Levin’s favor. Compared to the business-friendly Neal, who has been more supportive of free-trade agreements, Levin is more ideologically in line with a Caucus dominated by liberals.

And Levin’s incumbency is still a plus in a party that gives significant weight to seniority — though perhaps slightly less than it did before Levin’s home-state colleague Rep. John Dingell (D) was toppled as Energy and Commerce chairman in a 2008 coup by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“I don’t see any reason why there’d be a contest,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the fourth-ranking Democrat on the panel. “The seat’s not for sale, and I think Sandy’s doing a good job at being the chairman.”

Neal’s argument in part, according to Pascrell, is that he would bring a “fresh approach.”

“Richie has made it his business to be a coalition builder,” said Pascrell, who said he is unsure who he’d back in a possible matchup. “He needs to build bridges now without going over the top while we have a chairman.” After the election, Pascrell said, if Democrats end up with a narrowed margin, “the culture might be more apt to want a moderate.”

At least for now, however, Neal won’t even signal an interest in the job publicly.

His spokesman William Tranghese said: “Congressman Neal is waiting for the ethics committee to complete its work to see if the gavel returns to Mr. Rangel this year. That’s out of respect for Mr. Rangel and a reflection of their close friendship. In the meantime, Mr. Neal will face a Republican opponent in November and he is actively raising money for his re-election campaign. He is also working hard to keep a Democratic majority in the House and is generously contributing to friends and colleagues in campaigns across the country. Those are his priorities at the moment.”

Indeed, Neal is focusing on fundraising, particularly for vulnerable “Frontline” program members such as Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.). He’s also looking to stock his campaign coffers with a fundraising weekend on Cape Cod in June for his Madison political action committee. Last month alone, Neal forked over $100,000 to the party committee and gave an additional $50,000 to Democratic office-seekers from his campaign account and leadership PAC.

Levin hasn’t exactly been a wallflower, however. The Michigan Democrat has aggressively picked up his fundraising activity of late — last month he cut a $110,000 check to the DCCC and gave another $100,000 to Democratic incumbents and candidates, federal election records show.

Chambers said that Levin’s no stranger to party politics, noting that he served as chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party before coming to Washington and continues to try to be helpful to candidates from the Wolverine State.

Still, few lobbyists are willing to stick their heads above the fray and publicly say whether they are picking sides in a prospective Neal-Levin matchup.

And Neither Jones nor Raffaelli would say whom they prefer. Raffaelli said he still supports Rangel reclaiming the chairmanship if and when he is cleared of ethics charges.

“As senior Members they are raising a great deal of money for the DCCC and being the draws at events for Frontliners around the country to help keep the majority,” Jones said about the decision to host the fundraiser.

The posture by lobbyists isn’t surprising: Many learned their lesson after taking sides in the high-profile Dingell-Waxman race two years ago, during which many K Streeters put their weight behind Dingell only to see him lose to Waxman in the end.

It appears to be a fine line. “It’s really not our job or our business on K Street to help pick and choose who are committee chairmen,” said Democratic lobbyist Tom Jolly. “Most Congressmen I know are a little resentful of K Street people and lobbyists who get involved in internal House affairs.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped Jolly of Jolly/Rissler from engaging in the money game.

Jolly, along with four Ernst & Young lobbyists, including Nick Giordano, Francis Grab and Bobby Rozen, are hosting a fundraiser for Levin next Wednesday at Sonoma restaurant.