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With Panel Chairmen, Pelosi Picks Her Battles

After 12 years without the party holding a single gavel, House Democratic leaders have mostly succeeded in avoiding messy public battles with committee chairmen in their new majority, often giving them wide discretion to manage their bills although sometimes grabbing the legislative reins when it comes to high profile issues.

The relative comity between leaders and chairmen will be tested in the coming rush of legislation in what is expected to be a tense and lengthy fall session, with Democrats still forming their battle strategy for the next Iraq War bill and in the midst of an internecine fight over vehicle mileage standards.

Senior Democratic aides say House leaders have smoothed over disputes at weekly meetings with committee chairmen and leadership, cutting deals and reaching consensus on contentious issues ranging from a tobacco tax hike to language calling for a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

“We’ve shown that we can work across the board with committee chairs,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “When we have a leadership meeting and it’s about a relevant topic, the relevant chairmen are there and there is a dialogue. … That’s why we’ve been able to get these big, multi-committee bills done — especially with the energy bill. That was so large that there had to be a sense of ownership across the Caucus.”

But Pelosi hasn’t given chairmen free rein across the board and hasn’t allowed a return to the days of all-powerful committee chairmen, setting a broad agenda and acting repeatedly to prod chairmen to move the party’s issues along — and block initiatives she opposes.

Pelosi kept intact much of the structure used by House Republicans after they took over in 1995, including term limits, that weakened committee chairmen. However, some Democratic chairmen dismissed the term limits and said they would be changed before the current six-year terms are up in 2013, assuming Democrats stay in charge that long. Aides said that leadership essentially left the question open for future discussion since the issue isn’t pressing.

Meanwhile, Pelosi has had her hands in the nitty-gritty details of some bills more than former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did, which has Republicans charging that she has run roughshod over committee chairmen, particularly Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Pelosi stopped cold a plan floated by Dingell’s committee to block her home state of California from adopting stricter emissions standards than the federal government, and she made clear her desire for tougher vehicle mileage standards than Dingell and the auto industry support. She also formed the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee, which Dingell derided, although she gave it no legislative authority.

“You have to have this agent that can help foster more public awareness and that’s the way she views it,” Hammill said of the committee.

For his part, Dingell downplayed any tensions with Pelosi.

“The Speaker and I have a good working relationship,” Dingell said. “She is a strong activist Speaker and I am a strong activist chairman so we have disagreed at times, but we have worked out our differences in an effective and satisfactory way and will continue to do so.”

But Republicans charge that Pelosi has dictated legislation on energy and other matters to her chairmen.

“It certainly appears as if the House is run out of Pelosi’s office,” a senior House Republican leadership aide said. “The committee chairmen aren’t empowered to let the committee process work in order to produce truly well-crafted and bipartisan legislation, they are directed to craft bills as dictated by the Speaker’s office.”

The Pelosi-Dingell dispute extended into renewable electricity standards, which Pelosi was able to push through on the House floor over Dingell’s opposition, and to higher vehicle mileage standards, the outcome of which remains in doubt. House leaders promise higher vehicle mileage standards will be in a House-Senate conference report. It’s unclear whether Pelosi has the votes on the House floor to back the 35 miles-per-gallon standard she supports, although a tactical decision was made not to fight it out in July when it was already in the Senate bill. So Pelosi and her team concentrated instead on passing energy tax language and the renewable electricity standards, which were left out of the Senate bill.

Despite their policy differences, however, Pelosi and Dingell have appeared together numerous times in public, including on the energy bill, and repeatedly have sung each other’s praises.

One area where some Members feel leadership gave a committee chairman too much of a leash came when Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) announced his plan to disclose earmarks only after bills had passed the House to give the committee more time to vet them. That provoked an outcry from Republicans who charged that Democrats were creating secret slush funds and falling short in their promises to reform earmarks. Senior Democrats grumbled about the incident behind the scenes, one calling it a “self-inflicted wound” and saying that Pelosi never should have allowed the plan to go forward in the first place.

Within days, Obey was forced to back down after Republicans ground House floor action to a halt.

House leaders also decided to tread softly over the 9/11 commission’s recommendations to consolidate committee jurisdiction over homeland security issues. Democrats created a select committee to bridge the gap between appropriators and the Intelligence panels but did little to rein in the sprawling jurisdictions over homeland security, which would have angered chairmen who would have seen their portfolio shrink.

At an enrollment signing ceremony in the Capitol, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) remarked that it could have been worse, in that the Homeland Security panels didn’t lose any jurisdiction.

But leadership played major roles in crafting the finer points of the lobbying reform package and the Iraq War debate, balancing different factions of the Caucus. Democratic leaders also bridged the gap between committees on major bills, including energy, which spanned 10 committees, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which also included multiple committees.

“It was critical to work together,” one senior committee aide said. “Leadership is really the main hub in everything and they do a great job of incorporation.”

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