Democratic Gavel Races Heat Up

Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:31pm

It’s unclear whether House Democrats will even retain the majority next Congress, but that isn’t stopping a few Members from jockeying for two of the most coveted committee gavels.

Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.) is making an early play to lead the Ways and Means Committee next year, while Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.) is hoping to leapfrog a number of colleagues to take over the Appropriations panel. And both lawmakers are hoping to win support for their respective bids by unloading cash on Democratic incumbents and party committees.

Neal, who is sixth in seniority on Ways and Means, is looking to challenge Chairman Sander Levin (Mich.) for the position in the 112th Congress. Levin took the lead on the tax-writing panel earlier this year after Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) stepped aside amid a series of ethics problems.

Fattah is engaged in a long-shot bid against Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.) for the Appropriations chairmanship, which Rep. David Obey (Wis.) will leave vacant when he retires at the end of the 111th Congress.

In the quarter that ended June 30, Neal contributed $148,000 to Members, bringing his total contributions to his colleagues in 2010 to $197,000. Neal has also been generous to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: He contributed $250,000 and raised nearly $600,000 for it so far this cycle.

“Mr. Neal’s two priorities this election cycle are his own re-election campaign and maintaining a Democratic majority in the House,” Neal’s spokesman William Tranghese said in an e-mail. “His fundraising simply reflects how committed he is to achieving these two important goals.”

But Neal won’t be without a race. Levin has made it clear he wants to stay put and also has been increasing his fundraising activity in recent months.

In addition to serving as a headliner at 12 fundraising events in Washington, D.C., and around the country last quarter, Levin also shelled out $203,000 to Democratic incumbents and challengers.

The Michigan Democrat has also contributed heavily to the DCCC this cycle, handing over more than $340,000 so far. Levin has also raised more than $280,000 this cycle for the committee.

Levin Chief of Staff Hilarie Chambers said he is enjoying his new role as chairman.

“He takes very seriously the responsibility that comes with” the gavel, Chambers said. “Not only the issues before the committee, but we also have a laser beam on November and making sure we retain a healthy majority of really talented colleagues.”

Seniority traditionally dictates Democratic committee leadership, but not always. One of the most high-profile gavel races occurred last year when Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) mounted a successful ouster of Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) as Energy and Commerce chairman. Like Waxman, both Neal and Fattah are hoping to woo support for their respective bids by showing strength in fundraising.

While Neal is popular on K Street — he is seen as more pro-business than Levin — there are other forces working in Levin’s favor: He is viewed as more ideologically in line with the liberal-leaning Democratic Caucus. And while lobbyists are abuzz over the likely Neal-Levin Ways and Means race, they are less focused on Fattah’s uphill battle to win the Appropriations chairmanship.

Yet that doesn’t appear to be deterring Fattah — 21st in seniority on the panel — who would have to take out the committee’s powerful No. 2 Democrat, Dicks, to get the gavel.

While Fattah said it was too early to start publicly campaigning for the job, he said he still planned to go for it. “I’m pursuing it, and I’m very serious about it,” he said.

Several K Streeters downplayed Fattah’s power grab, saying Dicks is a sure bet to win any contest.

Dicks already has several Appropriations members backing his bid for the job. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), an appropriator, said he has already pledged his support to the Washington Democrat.

And Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who also sits on the panel, described Dicks as the “likely person to succeed” Obey. “Based upon seniority and ability, I think Norm Dicks is the likely leader,” Hinchey said, adding that although Obey and Dicks are “very different personally,” the committee probably wouldn’t change much because Dicks would run it similarly.

Hinchey said Dicks had a lot of allies within the Caucus, noting that “in the context of the work he is doing there, the respect for him is increasing.”

Fattah isn’t considered among the fundraising heavy hitters, but he has increased his giving slightly in recent months. He cut a check to the DCCC for $25,000 last quarter and contributed $20,000 over that same three-month period to Democratic incumbents and challengers. During the first quarter, Fattah gave $10,000 to the DCCC and contributed to just one Member, $1,000 to Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.).

“Right now, the pursuit is about getting Democrats elected to Congress,” Fattah said. “So I’m working harder trying to help fellow Democrats get elected, and there will be a campaign for chairmanships after the November election and before the reorganization.”

Fattah said he “absolutely” was helping his colleagues fundraise, noting that “any and all Democrats elected in November” will have a say in who gets the Appropriations gavel in the 112th Congress.

And while Dicks is widely viewed as a shoo-in for the post, he doesn’t appear to be taking anything for granted. Long a prolific fundraiser, Dicks has rapidly increased his fundraising activity since Obey’s retirement announcement in May. In June alone, Dicks contributed $20,000 through his leadership political action committee to Democratic incumbents and challengers, including $2,000 to fellow Appropriations Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.).

Dicks Chief of Staff George Behan said his boss’s fundraising activity has been on the rise since taking over the Defense subcommittee for the late Rep. John Murtha (Pa.).

“Obviously his committee change has some influence on that,” Behan said.

Dicks is also making the rounds with Members to line up endorsements and has offered to help fellow Defense subcommittee Democrats with fundraising.

While he declined to name names, Fattah said he had gotten numerous pledges of support from his fellow Democrats.

“Any review of the caucus would find me in a very competitive position,” he said.

Fattah predicted that Democrats would choose an Appropriations chairman based on the Congressman’s spending priorities and suggested that he would emphasize the need to focus on domestic priorities to draw a contrast with the military-minded Dicks.

“If we’re going to have very tight spending constraints … on what set of priorities should the Democrats in Congress draw the line,” he said, adding that he planned to stress issues such as education, health care and the environment. “There will be clear lines of delineation between what set of priorities I take the committee to and what might be offered by another candidacy. And that’s going to be my strength.”

“Where are you going to make the investments, and where are you going to make sacrifices. That’s what I think the central issue of the race is going to be about.”