Rep. Pete Stark’s (D-Calif.) verbal controversy during the SCHIP debate — for which he apologized on the House floor Tuesday — served as not only the latest in a long line of inflammatory statements but also as a reminder that Stark is next in line to become Ways and Means chairman.
Privately, the almost universal belief among Democrats is that Stark is too much of a liability to ever ascend to the top slot on the powerful tax-writing panel.
The 18-term California Democrat is next in seniority behind current Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is by all accounts enjoying his job and doesn’t appear ready to leave anytime soon. But if and when the top slot on the committee comes open it could be a test for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the tradition among Democrats of doling out committee gavels based largely on seniority.
Both publicly and privately, few Members are willing to speculate about Stark’s future and are largely mum on the hypothetical possibility that he could wield the Ways and Means gavel.
“I look forward to see what our leadership wants to do,” Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.
Committee chairmen are chosen by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and then must be ratified by the Democratic Caucus. The committee is appointed by Pelosi and she holds strong sway over the chairman-selection process.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) is next in line in seniority behind Stark on the Ways and Means panel. He had no comment on the matter Tuesday, noting how much Rangel is enjoying his job now as chairman.
But one Democratic lobbyist close to the party leadership said Levin appears to be well-positioned for the job, provided he’s still around when it comes open. Both Stark and Levin will be 81 years old by the end of 2012, when Rangel would be term-limited out of the job. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who also has a history of inviting controversy and is next in seniority, will be 76.
Levin currently chairs the Subcommittee on Trade and served as ranking member on the panel’s Subcommittee on Social Security in the109th Congress, playing a leading role for the party in the White House’s effort to overhaul the entitlement program.
“If you had to pick one of them I think that Pelosi’s view, from the Social Security experience … is that [Levin] would be the most likely candidate in that,” the lobbyist said.
The source also stressed that by the end of 2012 — the point at which current chairmen would have to relinquish their gavels if the current six-year limit remains in place — the top seniority of the committee could look very different than it does now and the next chairman could be someone who is currently a little further down the dais.
“I don’t think anyone sees Charlie Rangel going anywhere anytime soon,” the lobbyist said.
The situation could eventually play out in much the same way as the speculation over whether Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) or Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) would get the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee at the beginning of this Congress.
In that instance, Pelosi hardly spoke of the situation publicly — and never addressed the reasons why she passed over both Members in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who was less senior.
Similarly, the lobbyist said, Pelosi is unlikely to address the matter on the record, “but everyone will know it’s probably unlikely” that Stark will get the gavel.
One Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he expects the question of whether Stark will be committee chairman to be moot by the time it might come into play. The Member said he expected Democrats to revisit the current three-term limit for chairmen in the next Congress and to do away with the restriction.
“Term limits has never been a burning issue in the Democratic Caucus,” the Member said.
At one point, Pelosi’s strategy for how to leapfrog Stark seemed clear. Several years ago, then-Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) seemed poised to succeed Rangel as the top Democrat on the panel. While Matsui was less senior than Stark, the choice would have eliminated Pelosi’s dilemma in having to pass over a fellow Californian. But Matsui passed away in 2005.
Last week’s dust up on the House floor was just the latest in a string of Stark gaffs that often has brought unwanted media attention to his party.
Republicans charged that Stark demeaned U.S. troops in Iraq during last week’s floor debate over upholding or overriding the president’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program legislation.
“You don’t have money to fund the war or children,” Stark said. “But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
On the floor Tuesday morning, Stark gave an emotional apology.
“I want to apologize to my colleagues, many of whom I have offended,” Stark said. “I hope that with this apology I will become as insignificant as I should be, and that we can return to the issues that do divide us but that we can resolve in a better fashion.”
Republicans brought a privileged resolution to the floor Tuesday morning to censure Stark for his comments, but with dozens of Members missing, the House voted 196-173 to table the measure. Five Democratic House freshmen voted in favor of bringing the measure to a vote on the floor.
At a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Stark had done the right thing.
“I thought Mr. Stark’s apology was appropriate,” Hoyer said, noting that he spoke with Stark last weekend.
But Democratic leaders were less clear when asked later in the day whether Stark will manage SCHIP, which is expected back on the floor Thursday.
Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) laughed out loud at the question.
“When we get the bill on the floor, you’ll see who manages it,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said. Asked whether that was a “maybe,” he said no, and repeated what he said.
Still other Democrats expressed empathy for Stark.
“Peter Stark is a great American who has at times misspoke, and resembles all the rest of us in that regard,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. “He is a good human being and would be ready for any situation given the opportunity.”
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.