Candidates for Appropriations gavel laying groundwork

Could Wasserman Schultz be the ‘comeback kid’ in bid to take over spending panel?

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., arrives for the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the Capitol in 2018.  Wasserman Schultz is in a three-way race to succeed House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., arrives for the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the Capitol in 2018. Wasserman Schultz is in a three-way race to succeed House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 18, 2020 at 3:39pm

The race to succeed House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey is well underway, even though the House Democratic Caucus won’t make a final decision until after the November elections.

At this early stage, it’s a three-way contest with Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz actively campaigning, although others haven’t yet ruled out a bid. Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum says she wants to “wait until after the election and see what the situation in the House is” before deciding if she’ll run to replace Lowey, a New York Democrat.

The declared candidates are making their pitch using a combination of in-person conversations and “Dear Colleague” letters to emphasize their appeal to a broad cross section of the party. And no race would be complete without substantial cash being committed to colleagues’ reelection campaigns — critical if the title is to be chairwoman rather than ranking member.

Their efforts are likely to underpin the annual appropriations process that’s about to take center stage on Capitol Hill. DeLauro, Kaptur and Wasserman Schultz will conduct oversight hearings on key domestic and defense programs and lead the Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water and Military Construction-VA subcommittees, respectively.

‘DeLoSis’

Kaptur is the longest-serving panel member, but seniority isn’t the sole factor Democrats will use to choose Lowey’s successor. Lowey herself leapfrogged Kaptur to become the panel’s top Democrat in 2012 even though Kaptur had more seniority at the time.

DeLauro is second in seniority among panel Democrats returning next year, though many insiders see her as the safest bet because of her support among progressives and her close relationships with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the retiring Lowey. The three were referred to as the “DeLoSis” when they served together on Appropriations in the 1990s.

Wasserman Schultz, a long shot who’s 10th in panel seniority among returning Democrats, could be hamstrung by her controversy-laden stint as Democratic National Committee chairwoman. She was forced to step down during the 2016 campaign amid protests from Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders' supporters during the Democratic presidential primary, after Wikileaks released emails suggesting the national party favored Hillary Clinton.

But Wasserman Schultz is able to tap a vast donor network she built up during her time as party chief and before that as a top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the lead fundraising post for House Democrats. She’s currently ahead of her rivals in the money chase, although DeLauro has distributed more to colleagues this cycle and Kaptur is sitting on her own pile of cash ready to be deployed, based on the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who ran for the top Republican slot on the House Appropriations Committee in 2018, said the three lawmakers’ history will matter just as much as, if not more than, how they campaign during the next few months.

“You can only do so much in the last year and a half, so what’s the impression you’ve left literally over a couple of decades?” said Cole, a former head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm.

“Your personal reputation with your colleagues really counts,” he continued. “They know you better than anybody else does. They’ve watched you more closely than anybody else has. And they are making a collective judgment about what’s good for them and what’s good for the team that they are part of.”

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Core values

DeLauro, who manages the largest domestic spending bill for House Democrats, is promoting her ability to uphold core Democratic values while working with Republicans to pass legislation and avoid future government shutdowns.

“I have spoken to every member of the Democratic Caucus, making my case for why I would be a strong Appropriations chair in the next Congress as well as listening for what they are looking for in that leadership role,” DeLauro told CQ Roll Call, adding that she already has “strong support” and a whip team tracking the vote. “Our caucus is looking for someone who is effective, inclusive and who works with Republicans — and at the same time, someone who will fight for our priorities.”

Kaptur is touting both her committee seniority and her status as the longest-serving female lawmaker in House history.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Kaptur sought to remove questions about where she stands on abortion rights, an issue that tripped her up with left-leaning colleagues in her earlier race against Lowey. Kaptur wrote she “fully supports the removal of the Hyde Amendment,” which prevents the use of federal funding for abortions with limited exceptions.

The Toledo-area Democrat is also pointing to her ability to unite the party, noting her district is “diverse and economically challenged” with below-average median income among House districts. “The message of hope and opportunity for all people that resonates in purple states like my own, represents the foundation of the Democratic Party,” Kaptur wrote.

Wasserman Schultz said in an interview that she’s mostly talking with members about changes they’d like to see on the panel as well as her vision for the committee. “I’ve been chief deputy whip since my second term, so I spend a lot of time working on issues important to members, talking with them about our legislative agenda,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz also noted her support for at-risk Democrats: “One of the things that we clearly need to make sure is that there is a chair position to run for.”

Money chase

Through her leadership PAC, Wasserman Schultz has raised $350,675 and distributed $70,500 to other candidates this election cycle, according to FEC data. Her PAC still holds $134,000 that she’ll be able to dole out as Election Day gets closer.

Updated filings for January are due to the FEC on Thursday.

Wasserman Schultz’s PAC has brought in more than $600,000 each cycle since 2010, peaking at $2.2 million in 2014. She’s raised far more than the average House member with a leadership PAC over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — a factor that could counterbalance unease coming from progressives backing Sanders.

DeLauro’s and Kaptur’s leadership PACs have consistently brought in less than the average House member, according to the Center. Since 2010, DeLauro’s PAC has raised between $100,000 and $200,000 per cycle, while Kaptur’s PAC has stayed below $100,000.

Through January, DeLauro’s PAC raised $168,550 and transferred $86,000 to Democratic candidates — $79,000 in December alone — but she’s got only about $10,300 left in the bank. Kaptur’s PAC, which will submit updated figures later this week, through December had brought in $66,300 and spent $48,000, but she had another $158,000 on hand.

Donors to all three lawmakers include a cross section of labor unions and others with interests before the Appropriations Committee.

Contributors who maxed out to DeLauro’s PAC last year include employees of Boeing Co., Raytheon Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., as well as the Transport Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers unions. Jed Manocherian, a real estate investor and developer who advocates for National Institutes of Health funding, and his brother Greg also contributed the maximum, as did Steve Elmendorf, a prominent Democratic lobbyist.

Top contributors to Kaptur include several labor unions representing autoworkers, sheet metal workers, bricklayers, plumbers, longshoremen and others. Employees of Akron-based utility FirstEnergy Corp. and Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. have done their part, as well as the Ratner family, which owned Cleveland-based real estate developer Forest City Enterprises before its sale to Brookfield Asset Management in 2018.

Wasserman Schultz has pulled in the maximum from billionaire sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul, SlimFast Foods CEO S. Daniel Abraham and employees of Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the American Bankers Association, Comcast Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., the American College of Radiology and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Health insurer Humana Inc.’s PAC is a top donor to Wasserman Schultz directly and to numerous other Democrats that it has funneled contributions to using her PAC as a conduit, FEC data shows.