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Democrats Nervously Eye Ratios

As Republican and Democratic leaders prepare to hand out coveted panel slots in January, Members on both sides of the aisle are anxious to find out how many committee seats they’ll actually have.

Aides to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have begun negotiations on whether panels’ partisan ratios will change in the 109th Congress. Hastert has not yet made any decisions on the subject, according to GOP leadership sources.

Republicans netted three House seats in this past election, meaning that their share of the chamber increased from 52.6 percent to 53.3 percent. Whether that gain merits increasing the party’s advantage on committees remains a subject of debate.

Since the election, Pelosi has made several overtures to Hastert on the matter, urging him to keep the current ratios and number of slots intact. Democratic leadership aides said Pelosi and her staff plan to again talk with Hastert’s office to press their case.

“We’ve made it clear that we will not accept any fewer Democratic seats,” said a Democratic leadership aide of Pelosi’s conversations with Hastert.

“Even with the ratios we have, we have fewer [seats] than the percentage of Americans we represent,” the aide added. “We represent 130 million Americans and our voices need to be heard.”

The current partisan ratio varies depending on the panel. On the Agriculture Committee, for example, Republicans now have 27 of 51 seats, or 52.9 percent. But on the Appropriations Committee, the GOP’s share is 55.3 percent, and the majority holds 58.5 percent of Ways and Means Committee slots.

Pelosi’s biggest fear, according to aides, is that Hastert may decide to shrink the size of some panels. That would reduce the number of coveted seats she has to hand out, a key source of a House leader’s power.

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), for example, continues to advocate making his committee smaller, perhaps by one seat on each side of the aisle.

While Hastert has not made any final decisions on that front either, GOP leadership aides said it was highly unlikely the Speaker would reduce the size of Ways and Means, though other panels could be shrunk.

On the subject of ratios, it is unclear how receptive Hastert will be to Pelosi’s pleas. Relations between the two party leaders have generally been poor since Pelosi took the top Democratic post in November 2002.

Democrats hoped that they had earned some chits with Hastert when they allowed the House to adjourn before Thanksgiving, but Republicans argue that Pelosi did not help herself by demanding that the whole chamber return last week to strip a controversial Internal Revenue Service provision from the omnibus spending bill rather than allowing it to be removed by unanimous consent.

“Pelosi was really showing good faith when she made the whole House come back to vote on the IRS provisions,” said a Republican leadership aide. “I guess her bipartisanship is a one-way street.”

House Democrats acknowledge they have little power to influence the Republican decision on ratios and would only be able to mount a public relations offensive to retaliate.

“You will see protests from both leadership and rank and file,” assured another Democratic leadership aide. “Republicans have to keep in mind that we’ve gone through many trends and things can change. They could find themselves on the receiving end.”

The staffer added, however, that a rhetorical war would do little in the end.

“It’s a shot in the dark that we — in this super minority — think we have any chance of going up against whatever decision the majority makes,” the aide said.

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