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Lowey retirement sparks Democratic Appropriations scramble

Contested battle expected for top spot on powerful House spending panel

New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey announced her retirement last week at the end of the 116th Congress. Who will replace her as the top Democrat on House Appropriations? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey announced her retirement last week at the end of the 116th Congress. Who will replace her as the top Democrat on House Appropriations? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey’s decision to retire at the end of the 116th Congress will set off a lengthy and contentious campaign among her colleagues to determine who will become the top Democrat on the spending panel.

Unlike the Senate, which predominantly relies on seniority to determine who serves as a chairman or ranking member, the House weighs several factors before deciding who will lead a committee. And right now, assuming Democrats keep their House majority next year, signs may be pointing in the direction of Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who will be the third-ranking Democrat on the powerful committee in 2021. 

That’s because Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who after Lowey is the most senior Democrat, is no shoo-in for the job; she’s already lost out to someone more junior once — Lowey herself, back in 2012. But it’s not clear it’s going to be Kaptur’s turn this time either, given the Democratic Caucus shied away from her earlier candidacy in part because of her opposition to expanding abortion rights.

And if anything, since 2012 the caucus has moved even further away from Kaptur’s abortion views, with a groundswell earlier this year for junking the 40-year-old Hyde amendment preventing public health funds from paying for abortions, although the provision remained in the House spending bill.

However, over the last few years Kaptur has been a reliable vote for protecting abortion access, with a 100 percent score in the 115th Congress from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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In 2017, Kaptur told CQ Roll Call her loss to Lowey probably reflected her lack of fundraising prowess rather than her abortion stance: “What probably hurt me the most is that I don’t raise millions of dollars and indebt others to me,” she said at the time. That’s starting to change some; Kaptur in the current campaign cycle has donated $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and is sitting on more than $865,000 in cash that she’ll have to parcel out, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

However, in the same interview Kaptur said the Democratic Party ought to have a “big tent,” including abortion foes — a comment that won’t endear her to many current Democratic Caucus members and outside groups. Additionally, Kaptur at times has clashed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who enjoyed a warmer relationship with Lowey. 

But Kaptur said Thursday she will be in the running — when the time is right. 

“Though it is far too early for the Democratic Caucus to begin considering successors to that position, I am interested in placing my name for consideration as the committee member with the most experience and seniority when the time is appropriate,” she said in a statement.

Out of the running

Next in line behind Kaptur is Indiana Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, but he took himself out of the running for Lowey’s job Thursday. “Given the serious nature and necessity for continuity to address evolving threats to our national security, I have no intention of seeking the Chairmanship of the full House Appropriations Committee,” Visclosky, currently the Defense subcommittee Chairman, said in a statement.

As House Democrats weigh the return of earmarks, elevating Visclosky to lead them on the full committee could have been a potential liability. Before House Republicans banned earmarks in 2011, special projects had been a Visclosky specialty — and one that got him in hot water with congressional ethics investigators.

In 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended the House Ethics Committee look into Visclosky’s ties to the PMA Group, a lobbying firm whose clients benefited from projects he sponsored. Visclosky had to temporarily step aside from the Energy-Water chairmanship he held at the time. The Ethics Committee closed the case in 2010 and didn’t take further action, but the allegations dogged the quiet Indiana Democrat for years.

California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard also said she won’t seek to lead Democrats on the full committee. She chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee and will be fifth in seniority among panel Democrats in 2021, assuming no additional retirements. 

DeLauro in the fast lane?

That puts DeLauro, a favorite of progressives and a close Pelosi ally, in the driver’s seat once the Steering Committee gets around to reviewing the matter after the 2020 elections. DeLauro, who confirmed Thursday she’ll run for top Appropriations Democrat, manages the largest nondefense spending bill for Democrats and has a record as a strong critic of conservative social policy as well as the Trump administration.

Earlier this year she found herself at the center of debate about how to address a funding shortfall for agencies that process undocumented immigrants and nonprofit organizations paid to take care of unaccompanied minors after they were separated from their families by a Trump administration policy.

The House eventually had to accept the Senate’s version of the bill, which DeLauro voted against. “Given the Trump administration’s history of abuses, I could not in good conscience vote to give the Trump administration this funding because I do not trust them to properly care for the children,” she said at the time.

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DeLauro decided against stripping the Hyde amendment from this year’s Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, but the caucus largely backed that move in the interest of moving the expansive measure through the process and enhancing their leverage in spending talks with Senate Republicans. And she made clear her personal opposition to the Hyde amendment, which she called discriminatory against lower-income women.

DeLauro and Kaptur could potentially see another competitor in the race: Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chairman David E. Price. The North Carolina Democrat said in a statement Thursday that he was traveling in Africa and hadn’t yet made a decision. “[B]ut when the time comes, I look forward to talking with colleagues about Appropriations Committee leadership” at the full committee and subcommittees “as we fill major gaps” due to Lowey’s retirement.

Lowey’s departure will also mean changes for the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, on which she has been the top Democrat since 2007. California Rep. Barbara Lee is in line to take over that subcommittee, because under House caucus rules the lawmaker with the most seniority on a subcommittee does become chairman or ranking member.

The Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee will also see change with the retirement of Chairman José E. Serrano —who had been ahead of DeLauro in seniority — due to Parkinson’s disease. Serrano is a New Yorker like Lowey, meaning the state — particularly New York City and its environs — will lose a fair amount of clout in the 117th Congress, though presumably Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer will keep an eye on things in their absence.

Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright is in line to be the top Democrat on the subcommittee, bringing a much different regional perspective — and quieter personal style — to the job than Serrano.

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