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Pelosi Cements Grip on Caucus

Just weeks into her tenure, Democratic Members and aides see Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) taking subtle steps to consolidate her power within the new House majority, provoking some grumbling, but largely avoiding any serious internal revolts as Democrats settle into their new roles.

Pelosi has made herself the Democratic Caucus’ clear leader in formulating an agenda and message strategy, also while installing key staff at the party’s campaign committee. At the same time, she is working to rein in the chamber’s chairmen, an effort that aims to prevent the resurgence of largely autonomous chairmen that dominated the House chamber during the previous Democratic majority.

In the initial weeks of the 110th Congress, however, those efforts are drawing largely muted reactions from the party’s 21 newly installed chairmen — many of whom held gavels in the party’s last majority 12 years ago. That initial response may not prevent troubles ahead, but for now, many are chalking up any discord to their new roles.

“From my vantage point, the Democratic chairmen are happy to be in charge, and it takes some getting used too,” said one Democratic chairman who asked not to be named, to allow him to speak more freely on sensitive issues. “I don’t think there’s real disagreement.”

The chairman acknowledged a push for coordination between the Speaker and committee leaders, noting that he has met with Pelosi several times in recent weeks. “To some degree, the Speaker is the leader of the party and an effective Speaker would work with the chairmen,” the Democrat said.

Despite the push for consolidation, however, one Democratic aide suggested that reaction is subdued because there is little concern that Democratic chairmen will become “irrelevant,” as some Democrats viewed their Republican counterparts under the rule of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Nevertheless, Pelosi hasn’t managed to avoid every dispute within her party.

In the most public spat in the first weeks of the 110th Congress, the Speaker drew the ire of Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) when she announced last week that she would seek a new select committee to examine the issue of global warming.

The Michigan lawmaker, loathe to forfeit any his committee’s jurisdiction, publicly dismissed the panel. In a meeting of the Energy and Commerce panel’s Democrats, Dingell later argued the Speaker’s proposal would be better served as a task force or special committee within the Democratic Caucus.

But while the proposal drew criticism from others, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — who said last week, “I can see the reason for this Speaker wanting to give this extra focus and attention,” but stopped short of supporting the select committee — large numbers of Democrats are not expected to oppose the proposal when it reaches the House floor. Most Republicans are expected to object to the proposal.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who said he spoke with Dingell Tuesday during a weekly chairmen’s meeting, could not confirm when that measure will come to the House floor.

“I want to talk to more people on our side to see if we’re going to have a problem on our side,” Hoyer said, before later adding: “Jurisdictional issues are real issues … but I think we’ll work it out.”

The new committee, which draws on the jurisdiction of eight committees, would not have legislative authority under the proposal unveiled by Pelosi last week.

Responding to criticisms of the proposed panel at a Tuesday press conference, which focused on last night’s State of the Union address, Pelosi stated: “One percent of the people in the Caucus are opposed to it, and 99 percent want to be on the Select Committee.”

One senior Democratic aide acknowledged that while Pelosi may be flexing her political muscle in this case — “She doesn’t think he will move legislation as quickly as she wants,” the aide said — it remains to be seen whether her action is unique, or intended as a warning for future challengers.

Another Democratic chairman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the spat largely remains between Dingell and the Speaker, rather than all the chairmen.

“I’m jealous of my jurisdiction, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that,” the chairman said. “But I believe if we are to govern effectively, there has to be better coordination, regardless of personal fiefdoms.”

The Democratic chairman, who acknowledged that the Speaker had discussed the select committee with him at an earlier date, dismissed the idea that such a panel would take power away from any panels.

“It’s not precedent setting,” he asserted, adding that he “would not be surprised” to see additional select committees during the new Congress.

A Democratic aide, who asked not to be named, defended the Speaker’s decision to call for the committee’s creation, stating: “I think it’s evident she’s been leading by consensus.”

Still, some Democratic chairmen questioned that commitment at the start of the Congress three weeks ago, when lawmakers discovered that Republican-authored term limits would be continued in the new session.

The rules, which limit lawmakers to six-year terms at the helm of a committee, were initially adopted by the Republican majority following the 1994 elections, as part of the “Contract with America.”

When House lawmakers adopted rules governing the 110th Congress, the Democratic leadership authored a series of changes focused primarily on ethics and lobbying reforms, while maintaining the majority of the rules from the last session, including those term limits.

Although Democratic leaders stated that the House will revisit those rules, no definitive date has been set for that discussion.

The Speaker “has made it clear that she doesn’t care for the term limits either,” the Democratic aide said. “It’s just a matter of when to approach changing that. We’ve got six years to look at it.”

There also are indications that Pelosi intends to keep a strong hand in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, notably the installment of Brian Wolff — a close political confidant to Pelosi and deputy executive director in charge of finance in the last cycle — as the new executive director.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), tapped by Pelosi to head the campaign committee, also has opted to bring on another top Pelosi aide, Jennifer Crider, to run the communications shop.

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