The late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) perch in the southeast corner of the House chamber remained empty during Tuesday votes, and it’s likely to stay that way for some time in a ceremonial nod of respect to the defense-spending baron, who died earlier this month and was laid to rest last week. But a handful of ambitious Democratic lawmakers are already jockeying for one of Murtha’s other seats — his exclusive assignment to the powerful Appropriations Committee.
The field so far is narrow, with only two Members confirmed to be actively seeking the post: sophomore Reps. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.) and Travis Childers (D-Miss.). But sources said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) is likewise interested and that the list could grow as the behind-the-scenes jostling heats up.
The House Democratic Steering Committee, which will vote to recommend Murtha’s replacement to the broader Democratic Caucus, has not yet set a date for considering the opening. And leadership sources said the panel likely won’t convene to do so until next week at the earliest.
“It is too early to consider the vacancy. Members are still mourning the passing of Chairman Murtha and not even discussing this,” one Democratic leadership aide said.
But both Carney and Childers at least have begun lobbying their colleagues to support their bids. Their arguments for the seat overlap in some ways. Both lawmakers represent marginal seats and could use the assignment to help make the case to voters back home that they deserve re-election. And both Members’ districts have been represented by appropriators in previous Congresses — Childers succeeded then-Rep. Roger Wicker (R), a member of the panel before he got tapped for a Senate seat; Carney ousted Republican Rep. Don Sherwood, an appropriator who himself had replaced a longtime committee member, former GOP Rep. Joseph McDade.
The Pennsylvania connection could cut both ways for Carney and Murphy. The state’s delegation will rally to keep the seat of a committee legend with one of their own. “As you can imagine, Chairman Brady strongly believes that Mr. Murtha’s seat should remain a Pennsylvania seat,” said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), a close friend of Murtha’s and the region’s representative on the Steering and Policy Committee.
But leaders also take regional equity into account when doling out exclusive committee assignments, and the Keystone State’s region — which also includes Ohio and Kentucky — is overrepresented on the Appropriations panel. Even with the loss of Murtha, the region claims four appropriators, while most others have three. And Murphy’s Philadelphia-area district is next door to that of the state’s lone remaining committee member, Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah.
Childers is making the case that his state could use the help of a more powerful advocate for federal dollars. “The State of Mississippi is a small agrarian state that is dependent upon federal resources for its fiscal well being,” he wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (Conn.). He noted that he has been asking for a spot on the panel since he won a special election to his seat in May 2008, “and I would be remiss if I do not write you requesting an appointment for the current vacancy on the committee.”
Top Democratic aides noted that the field, such as it is, could well be upended by new contenders, and Pelosi continues to wield enough leverage with the Steering Committee to help clear a path for another favorite.
When the Steering panel meets, it will also hand out nods to fill vacancies left by former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.); Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who is resigning at the end of the week; and Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.), who switched parties in December. None of the assignments is to an exclusive committee.