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In House, Waiting on Corzine

With House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) increasingly viewed as the frontrunner to be appointed the next Senator from New Jersey, his House colleagues are privately prepping for earlier-than-expected leadership elections.

Menendez is one of several Democrats jockeying to succeed Senator and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jon Corzine (N.J.) who, if elected as expected on Nov. 8, will choose his own replacement. Although Corzine has not indicated whom he would select, many observers favor Menendez to win the nod.

The effects of the gubernatorial race will be felt on both ends of the Capitol. If tapped for the Senate, Menendez would vacate his Democratic Caucus chairman job, requiring that leadership elections — regularly anticipated for late 2006 — be held sometime between November and February.

Menendez’s departure from House Democrats’ No. 3 leadership post would not only open up his position, but the vice chairman’s post as well. Current Vice Chairman James Clyburn (S.C.) already is running hard to succeed Menendez as chairman, and three other Democrats — Reps. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), John Larson (Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) — all want Clyburn’s job.

Under New Jersey law, if elected, Corzine would be inaugurated as governor on the third Tuesday in January, in this case Jan. 17, 2006. Even so, many speculate the Democratic Senator may make public his decision about a successor beforehand to speed the changeover.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure for Corzine to give a hint as to who he would appoint,” said David Rebovich, director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. “I think he will wait a couple weeks and make the announcement soon after the election to end the drama, first of all, and secondly to allow the nominee to prepare for the transition.”

While it is possible House Democratic leaders would hold elections before Corzine officially is sworn in, most anticipate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will wait until later in January when Members return for the second session of the 109th Congress. Leadership sources say that under that scenario Members will likely have left town for the year by the time Corzine makes his choice clear, and Pelosi will want to wait to hold Caucus elections until the now-Senator officially is the New Jersey governor.

“There will be some hesitancy to have the election to replace the vice chair [of the Caucus], who is a sitting Member of Congress, and a chair who has yet to be appointed to the United States Senate,” said one high-level Democratic staffer.

In the past, House Democratic leaders have vetted the timing of elections with the individual candidates to ensure consensus. Sources say House leaders have yet to discuss the timing of the balloting, but acknowledge there may be some pressure if Menendez is tapped to get the voting under way sooner rather than later to ensure time for the new chairman to organize the annual Caucus retreat, one of the largest House Democratic events and usually held in February.

Menendez, for his part, has kept mum on the topic of his future, other than to say he would be interested in a Senate seat if there “were a vacancy.” By all accounts, however, Menendez actively is pursuing the post and already raising money and working to help elect Corzine in November.

Regardless of who gets the Senate appointment, Corzine’s Senate seat is up in 2006, and the appointee will likely compete in a Democratic primary in June for a full term (Menendez has not ruled out running in the primary if he isn’t appointed Senator). Republicans are expected to nominate Tom Kean Jr., son of the popular former governor and a potentially formidable contender, for the November 2006 general election.

Matt Miller, spokesman for Menendez, said this week his boss is “working to get Corzine elected” and isn’t going to speculate about how events may play out in the coming months.

“Bob Menendez has been working very hard this year to elect Jon Corzine governor and if there’s a vacancy, it’s something he’d be very interested in,” Miller said.

Rebovich said the current “conventional wisdom” in New Jersey says that Menendez is likely to win Corzine’s appointment in part because of his leadership position in the House, Hispanic heritage, name recognition and fundraising prowess. Menendez currently is sitting on just more than $4 million in campaign cash.

If Menendez were to get the Senate appointment, state Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D), an ally of the Congressman’s, would be the odds-on favorite to fill his House seat in a special election.

Menendez has some competition for the Senate appointment, however. New Jersey Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Robert Andrews also are mentioned as possible Corzine successors, and bring their own strengths to the table. Andrews is viewed as the most moderate of the three and says he can appeal beyond the Democratic base, while Pallone claims he has experience winning in Republican territory.

Regardless, the Democratic leadership candidates are preparing for Menendez’s departure, and acknowledge that an election initially seen as more than a year away could be sliced into a sprint of just a few weeks.

Clyburn, who became vice chairman in 2003 and is prevented from seeking another term in 2006, isn’t expected to face any contenders to replace Menendez, but even so, he said he’s not taking his candidacy for granted. He said he’s ready to step into the top role, working with Menendez and other leaders as they work to keep the Caucus unified and win back the majority.

“I support the leadership, and I will continue to do that,” he said. “I don’t have any agenda. My agenda is the Caucus agenda.”

All three vice chairman hopefuls said they are likewise gearing up for the leadership elections, which they say could occur within four months, or late next year.

“I clearly want to be ready in case this does happen in late November or December,” Schakowsky said. “I’m not certain the seat will be available, but I don’t want to be caught short. I want to be fully, fully prepared.”

Schakowsky, who has 43 public endorsements, said she recognizes many Members are focused on other matters, so she’s trying to give “gentle reminders” that the election may be coming up “sooner rather than later.”

As part of that, Schakowsky is talking to individual Members, mobilizing her whip team and continuing her outreach to the undecideds in the Caucus.

Beyond that, Schakowsky said she is working to help elect Democratic candidates and incumbents, and is upping efforts to raise money for the party through her role as the head of women’s outreach at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Larson said while it is unlikely the leadership races will be put to a ballot before January, when Corzine is sworn in, he is “prepared for any contingency.”

“While I think the candidates have a certain sense of heightened anxiety, I don’t think the Caucus shares that same sense,” he said. “I’ve got a great team together, and a really good group working for me.”

Larson, who has laid out 18 public supporters, said he is continuing his strategy of meeting with Members individually and holding meetings with prospective supporters. He also is raising money, planning on an Oct. 21 fundraiser for the DCCC.

“I feel very good about where we are,” he said. “We are in a position to adjust to any contingency.”

Crowley said while the only thing for certain is that the election will happen by the end of 2006, the candidates must be prepared for an election a year earlier.

“We’re prepared,” he said. “As I’ve been saying all along we’re prepared as much for November of next year or whenever the election may come.”

Crowley, who now claims 49 public backers, said his team is kicking the campaign into a higher gear and continuing to work on building support, meeting with Members and raising money for the party and candidates.

“I think we would win,” if the election were held today, Crowley said. “I’m not taking anything for granted, but I’ve worked very hard and we’ll continue to work hard.”

One senior Democratic source said if history is any indicator, Members can expect the most confident candidate heading into the balloting to call for the earliest possible elections.

“The sense of urgency will be with the person who thinks they are ahead,” the source said. “Whoever believes they are in the lead will push like crazy to get this done soon. Those who are behind and think there are still some undecided will push for more time.”

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