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Pelosi Trumps Chairs

Correction Appended

After more than a decade in the wilderness of the minority, senior Democrats who reclaimed the chairmanships of powerful House committees in January are finding those gavels just aren’t what they used to be.

Instead, chairmen and senior Democrats acknowledge, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and to a lesser extent Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other Democratic leaders — regularly have inserted themselves into legislative minutiae, often to push thematic messages important to the Democratic Caucus or to ensure protections for endangered Members, occasionally at the expense of committee priorities.

“It’s causing frustration because, unfortunately, the [Members from] marginal districts and the endangered ones, the freshmen, have some degree of veto power over things,” said one senior Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified in order to more freely critique leadership. “We’ve been waiting a long time and this is our chance.”

In particular, the lawmaker cited changes made to the children’s health insurance legislation — such as the removal of language to include the children of legal immigrants, although House leaders have asserted that measure was removed to appease Senate lawmakers who would not agree to it — and asserted that opposition to the Iraq War has not been as aggressive as some liberal Members would like.

Another Democratic lawmaker, who sits on an exclusive committee, said while it is not unusual that the Speaker would offer guidance on a particular bill, more significant intervention can be unwelcome, even to rank-and-file Members.

“People will always be more comfortable with regular order. … As soon as you deviate from it, Members feel less secure about the relevancy they will play,” the Democrat said, even as he praised Pelosi’s work so far.

“If you agree [with] where she’s going, it’s the appropriate thing to do,” he added. “If you take that out of the picture, and look at it, I think more Members would feel comfortable with the committee process as established.”

But Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) criticized attempts to evaluate whether Democratic chairmen have diminished authority in the party’s return to the majority this year.

“This is not a zero-sum game,” said Frank, who acknowledged that the Speaker and Majority Leader have at times asked him to consider a certain rank-and-file Member, particularly freshmen, when his panel is crafting legislation. “It’s a mutually supportive relationship.”

Democratic lawmakers and aides pointed to weekly meetings Hoyer holds with chairmen, as well as the numerous ad hoc sessions Pelosi calls to illustrate not only rapport between the groups, but also how strategy and adherence to message is communally worked out.

“This is a different era. … A lot of them are aware of the effect that media has in the different media environment than we were in 20 years ago,” said a senior House aide. “Unity of message becomes important and more of a top-down direction is necessary.”

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is a Pelosi confidant, echoed those remarks, asserting that it is beneficial for committees and leadership to pursue a coordinated agenda.

“When it comes to different issues, Speaker Pelosi wants to make sure we’re all together. It’s a good combination and a good balance,” he said.

As an example, the Californian pointed to the children’s health insurance bill passed in the House only to be largely substituted in negotiations for the Senate version of that legislation, which was significantly smaller in scope. Many House Democrats expressed disappointment with the revised measure, although they ultimately voted to support it.

“We have to defer to the bigger picture,” Waxman said.

But that deference has not agreed with some senior Members, including Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has criticized the negotiations over that legislation — which did not go through the regular conference committee process, an increasingly common practice in the 110th Congress — asserting that the House was “cut off at the knees.”

More recently, Pelosi avoided directly supporting Rangel’s broad-based tax plan — which he referred to as the “mother of all tax reform” — stating instead that the plan “has principles that we all support.”

“It is something that, again, the principles are supported by our Members, the particulars will be debated,” Pelosi said Thursday, and added: “As I say, a bill will come to the floor as it is debated. We will see what form it takes, but it will contain those principles.”

Similarly, in early October, party leaders publicly cast off a proposal from Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) for a $150 billion surtax to continue to fund the Iraq War.

Earlier this year, Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) waged a behind-the-scenes battle as the Speaker sought to establish the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee — threatening to impinge on the Michigan lawmaker’s turf, which includes explosive issues such as fuel-efficiency standards.

Although the Speaker’s proposal did not give the select committee legislative authority, the philosophical power struggle has carried on as House and Senate lawmakers aim to work out an energy legislation package.

While the House did not visit fuel-efficiency standards, Pelosi has repeatedly endorsed the Senate’s inclusion of new regulations: “That is a fight that we will have in the Congress, and I strongly support the CAFE language that is in the Senate bill.”

House Republicans have complained that Pelosi’s intervention on major legislation has prevented them from crafting bipartisan deals on energy and children’s health insurance with Dingell. Dingell had urged Pelosi to let him craft a bipartisan energy bill earlier this year, pledging to deliver not a Democratic bill but a Democratic accomplishment, only to be rebuffed.

“We’re now in this never-never land,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) of the energy bill. “If the Democrats don’t change their process, we’ll never have any kind of a bill that the president gets to sign.”

Barton said Democrats need to negotiate with House Republicans, not just dictate. “Why should I agree to a process that I know I’m going to get beat in?”

The same day Barton was ripping Democrats, he and Dingell headlined a press conference to announce a bipartisan deal on an overhaul of consumer safety laws.

“This bill shows Congress at its best,” Barton said. “This bill, or something very like it, will become law.”

Dingell said the members involved in drafting that bill believe “that the best legislation is found in the middle.” Dingell dismissed as “hypothetical” whether he thought he would be holding similar press conferences if House leaders had let him negotiate bipartisan SCHIP and energy bills.

One Democratic lawmaker, who serves on the Appropriations panel, asserted that Pelosi has inserted herself into legislation often as a necessity, however, to broker a middle-ground between the party’s “Old Bulls,” who have waited six terms for the return of their gavels, and more moderate freshmen, many from conservative-leaving districts.

“Dingell is a well-experienced man who has certain priorities,” said the Democrat, who requested anonymity. “Part of the issue is not only getting the majority but maintaining it. … Dingell has one priority that is good for his area, his district, but it’s not necessarily good for the country.”

The senior House aide, who asked not to be identified, attributed the shift in power to another factor — the effort Democrats put in to return to the majority more than a decade after their 40-year reign came to an end.

“When chairmen look at them, there’s a recognition that part of the reason they’re chairmen is the work Pelosi and Hoyer did raising money and working on message,” the aide said.

Intentionally or not, Democratic leaders may have signaled their desire to tamp down the former autonomy of chairmen at the opening of the 110th Congress by retaining GOP-authored term limits in the House rules that prohibit any Member from holding a gavel for more than six years.

Waxman said his fellow chairmen still expected those rules to be addressed at the start of the 111th Congress — the next time House rules would traditionally be revamped — stating: “Most Democrats are opposed to term limits.” But that remains to be seen, mainly because those rules would not affect any Members until the end of the 2010 cycle.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

Correction: Nov. 5, 2007

The article “incorrectly stated that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the creation of an Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee with legislative authority. Pelosi proposed a select committee in January but said the panel would not have any legislative jurisdiction.

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