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House Democrats Face Tough Choices in Judiciary Panel Race

Nadler and Lofgren vie for top spot amid party’s soul-searching

House Democrats picked Jerrold Nadler, right, over Zoe Lofgren to be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. (CQ Roll Call file photos)
House Democrats picked Jerrold Nadler, right, over Zoe Lofgren to be the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. (CQ Roll Call file photos)

Two experienced Democratic lawmakers with contrasting styles are vying to become the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and the vote this week could signal much more than just who will press the party’s agenda on the panel.

The choice of Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York or Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California will reveal much about the Democrats’ long-term strategy for a key committee as it deals with the tumult of President Donald Trump’s administration, the special counsel investigating his campaign, threats to civil rights and a reckoning of allegations of improper sexual behavior sweeping through Capitol Hill.

As Nadler and Lofgren make their pitches to various caucus groups, and to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday, part of the discussion centers on whom the party potentially wants in a high-profile role. And that role could be huge: If Democrats take control of the House after the 2018 elections, the Judiciary Committee chairman would be the point person in any potential impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“I don’t think anybody’s whipping for this race thinking that this next ranking member is merely going to be a ranking member,” said Steering Committee member Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat. “Everybody’s thinking that this person is going to be the next chairman of this committee.”

Nadler has staked out ground as the pugnacious and untiring political scrapper with a history of standing up to Trump “going back to my days in the New York State Assembly.” Lofgren has emphasized the experience she would bring to immigration, technology and constitutional issues.

House Democrats, in interviews about the full caucus vote for Judiciary ranking member that is set for Wednesday, kept referring to the role as committee chair. They consider this a tough decision, since both are a good fit for the role, and some are keeping their preferences close to the vest.

“I think they’re both very bright, very insightful, very judicious, and I think they have all the qualities, each one of them, to be a very effective chair of the Judiciary Committee,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told reporters.

Questions of identity

The race brings up broader questions for Democrats.

What about the rules on seniority? Nadler, first elected in 1992, has two years of seniority in the House over Lofgren. But newcomers to Congress have said the system has made it hard for younger talent to take leadership roles.

“I think seniority has its place, and in absence of a compelling reason, I think we should largely stick with seniority,” said Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, a Judiciary Committee member in his sixth House term.

Given that, will Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi press the Steering Committee to recommend a fellow lawmaker from her state of California? Pelosi added Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, as a vice chairman of the Steering Committee in December. Lofgren pointed out that California has 39 Democrats yet only one is ranking member of a committee.

There is also a divide on intellectual property, a multifaceted issue that is part of the committee’s work. Lofgren represents the heart of Silicon Valley and frequently takes the side of internet activists and California’s tech companies, while Nadler has tended to support content creators when it comes to copyright laws.

To a lesser degree, could this be a chance to reclaim ground amid the “me too” movement as women air their stories of sexually inappropriate behavior by men? Nadler took over as top Democrat at the committee when Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan stepped down and subsequently left Congress because of reports of sexually inappropriate behavior.

Lofgren could be seen as a better messenger when it comes to airing accusations of Trump’s inappropriate behavior with women in a way that would help Democratic congressional candidates in 2018. The committee’s Democratic women, including Lofgren, sent a letter Dec. 13 to Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia asking for a hearing for Trump’s accusers.

Divergent approaches

Nadler and Lofgren can both brag of deep experience on the Judiciary Committee and on the expansive domestic issues it will grapple with during the Trump administration.

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, said the historical legacy of the committee involves civil rights, voting rights, discrimination, justice and equality, oversight of the attorney general and the nation’s courts. Black voters have newfound prominence after their strong support underpinned an unlikely victory of Democratic Sen.-elect Doug Jones in Alabama last week.

“All of those things are very important to African-American civil rights, and that’s I think the legacy of the next chair that we need,” said Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Someone who’s going to be strong in fighting for civil rights, especially in this new age of voter suppression and all of these other things we’re starting to see pop up.”

The divergent approaches of Nadler and Lofgren show up in their statements about the ranking member role. Lofgren, in announcing her intent to seek the post, stressed the need to fix a broken immigration system, protect voting rights and civil rights and shield from deportation those who came to the country illegally as children — and then mentioned oversight of the Trump administration.

Nadler, in his announcement when he became ranking member, starts right off saying the committee’s important work is against the Republican majority, the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions “and all those who wish to turn back the long arc of history towards justice.”

The Steering Committee hears pitches from Nadler and Lofgren on Tuesday and then votes to recommend one to the full Democratic Caucus. The full caucus will then meet Wednesday to vote on the committee’s recommendation.

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