House Democrats set to pick new Appropriations chairwoman

Next panel leader will be at forefront of efforts to enact Biden administration's agenda

Seeking to be the next House Appropriations chairwoman are, from left, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Seeking to be the next House Appropriations chairwoman are, from left, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted November 30, 2020 at 7:00am, Updated at 12:00am

Corrected, Dec. 1 | Beneficiaries of more than $1.4 trillion in annual federal funding will find out this week who will be steering the ship as Appropriations Committee chairwoman for the 117th Congress.

Marcy Kaptur of Ohio is the most senior panel member in line for the job. Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro, who’s second in seniority, has the most impressive list of endorsements. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida is further down the seniority list, but she’s the most prolific party fundraiser.

It’s an important decision for House Democrats in many respects.

The heir to retiring Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, the New Yorker who’s been the panel’s top Democrat for eight years, will be at the forefront of trying to implement President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda, both domestically and internationally.

She’ll need to navigate tricky caucus politics when it comes to restoring “earmarks,” the special line items for member districts banned nearly a decade ago, and eliminating the 43-year-old Hyde amendment, which bars federal funds for abortions. All three candidates have professed support both for bringing back earmarks and getting rid of Hyde, but both efforts could put party moderates in tough positions.

Observers say the race is too close to call at this point, though DeLauro may be a slight front-runner.

DeLauro has the “inside track” based on her experience and relationships, according to Matt Dennis, a former communications director for House Appropriations Democrats under Lowey.

“[DeLauro is] everything that you look for in that position. She has very deep policy expertise on a broad range of issues. She knows how to work across the aisle to get things done without compromising on core Democratic values,” Dennis said.

Dennis noted that aside from her other attributes, DeLauro’s friendship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., can’t hurt. “I think that DeLauro's case is very strong on the merits even before you consider her relationship with Pelosi,” he said.

DeLauro, Lowey and Pelosi learned the appropriations ropes together during the 1990s. The trio was so close they became known as the “DeLoSis.”

Former Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., a longtime Appropriations panel member until his retirement in 2015, concurred that DeLauro probably has an edge.

“Even though Marcy has earned her seniority and Debbie has worked hard for the party, I think that Rosa is seen by the majority of the caucus as the person who could best be the face and voice of appropriations priorities,” said Moran, now a senior policy adviser at the law firm Nelson Mullins.

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Kaptur was passed over once before — in 2012 when Lowey, who had less seniority at the time, got the nod. Kaptur probably has the least likely odds of the three candidates, said a lobbyist who follows the process closely. This person, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said Kaptur doesn’t have the relationships that the others do.

In an interview, Kaptur said she’s well-equipped to help Democrats expand their voting coalition and win back seats. Kaptur, who represents a stretch of northern Ohio between Cleveland and Toledo, is alone among the three candidates in representing counties President Donald Trump carried twice.

“I think it’s important that people recognize that it was a very close election and that we have to work harder here in the House … to have programs that reach the people and help lift them up,” Kaptur said. “We have to pull together the various elements of our caucus in a very, very robust way that helps each of them in the parts of the country that they represent, and I think that’s going to take some skill.”

Big-name backers

DeLauro, first elected in 1990, currently oversees the largest domestic spending bill, which funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

The roughly $190 billion measure has become a battleground over the Hyde amendment in recent years, with DeLauro taking some heat from progressives for keeping it in the bill. But the realities of divided government have led to pragmatic decisions by Democratic leadership in both chambers not to pick a fight over that issue.

Nonetheless, DeLauro — who’s been a proud progressive since she was a community organizer for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty — says under her leadership and a Democratic White House, the time has come to remove Hyde. DeLauro’s already announced a Dec. 8 hearing on how the policy has impacted women who were unable to access abortion services “because of an inability to pay.”

DeLauro has rolled out a big list of union and other endorsements, which are likely to come in handy. The labor movement was a major contributor to party coffers in the 2020 campaign cycle.

Among DeLauro’s backers is American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten; an AFT-backed group gave more than $3 million to the Pelosi-affiliated House Majority PAC, according to Federal Election Commission data.

DeLauro supporters also include Mary Kay Henry, head of the Service Employees International Union, which gave $2 million to House Majority PAC; National Education Association President Becky Pringle, whose group’s advocacy fund contributed $1.5 million; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which gave $1 million.

DeLauro’s been in position to win friends and influence people through her role as a co-chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, appointed by Pelosi after her party took back the House in 2018.

The Steering panel controls selections to House committees, including their leaders. DeLauro stepped down from her position earlier this month to focus on her Appropriations Committee bid, making room for Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who's stepping aside as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

'Embarrassment of riches'

Wasserman Schultz backers say the race is by no means over.

“If anyone is saying they’ve got this race locked up they are not telling the truth,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., a member of Wasserman Schultz’s whip team. “It is very, very close.”

Rice said it was possible the first Steering committee vote is inconclusive and Democrats have to vote again. The way the process typically works is that if no candidate gets a majority, the one who gets the fewest votes is eliminated and the panel keeps voting until there’s a majority. However, any candidate can get a vote in the full Democratic Caucus as long as they have a member to nominate them and another to second the nomination.

Twice in the last decade, a Steering panel vote has been overturned by the full caucus.

In 2010, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., won the top Ways and Means slot over Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., the current Ways and Means chairman who had received the most Steering votes. And in 2014, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. won the caucus’ support to lead Energy and Commerce Democrats after the Steering committee had recommended Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., a close Pelosi ally.

Meanwhile, the three candidates have spent the last few weeks giving presentations to various party factions including the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Women’s Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition. Their whip teams have been double-checking their lists, with the candidates following up through a combination of in-person chats and phone calls.

Rice said the last days before the vote are going to be a crucial time for the campaigns to secure support from the members who were focusing on their own reelection bids before Nov. 3, and have only recently begun to think about contested chairmanship races.

“I think at the end of the day it’s going to come down to who is going to make the strong closing argument,” Rice said. “It’s close because you have three women who have been here a while; all of them have served in one form or another in top positions and all are well liked. … So it really is an embarrassment of riches first and foremost.”

This report has been corrected to reflect that any House Democratic gavel candidate can secure a full caucus vote if they have a lawmaker who nominates them and another to second the nomination.