WASHINGTON (JTA) – Amid the election season tumult, behind-the-scenes campaigns are also underway for who will be the next top Democrats on two key congressional committees — with Jewish lawmakers in the running for both leadership slots.
Two veteran congresswomen, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, are vying for the leadership of Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, perhaps the most powerful of the U.S. House of Representatives committees because it determines spending.
And Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is facing the Foreign Affairs committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), in a redistricting-fueled battle, has declared that he wants his fellow Jewish Democrat’s committee leadership post if he prevails. But if Sherman prevails in his House race, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a Berman ally, says he would vie to become the committee’s top Democrat.
Irrespective of which party ends up controlling the House after the 2012 elections, the two committee leadership fights are significant.
If the Democrats win back control of the House, they would be able to appoint the committee chairs, who have broad discretion in determining what legislation makes it out of the committee and onto the House floor, and what issues deserve oversight. The minority party’s leaders, while not as powerful as the chairs, may convene hearings and often work with chairs in shaping and advancing legislation.
At this stage the campaigning — among other members of the caucus, the congressional leadership and donors, and to a degree in the media — has been more about who plays well with whom than it has been about issues. But bubbling below the surface of the contests are two issues that are central agenda items for Jewish groups: abortion rights and Israel.
Kaptur is in line to be the appropriations committee’s most senior Democrat now that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) has announced that he is not running for reelection. Lowey is ranked fourth in seniority on the committee among Democrats. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), who is one slot above Lowey and one below Kaptur, is not considering a bid. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who is ranked seventh, also is considering a bid but is considered a longshot.
Asked to describe their respective bosses’ pitches, staffers for Kaptur and Lowey, the senior Democrat on the committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, used similar terms, describing longstanding and productive relationships with other lawmakers.
Kaptur’s communications director, Steve Fought, said of his boss, “She has an ability to get results to work in a bipartisan fashion and with some of the disparate elements of the Democratic caucus, which runs from left to right.”
A staffer in Lowey’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lowey had “good relationships across the caucus and worked well with members across the ideological spectrum.”
Lowey, 74, who was active in Jewish women’s groups before she launched her congressional career in 1989, is making her support for abortion rights an issue in her outreach, her staffer said. Republicans, the Lowey staffer said, tend to flood appropriations bills with amendments that would inhibit abortion as an option in the United States and overseas.
“It’s important to have someone who is willing to stand up for women’s health and who can be relied on,” said the staffer.
Kaptur, a Roman Catholic who represents a relatively conservative northern Ohio district, has been rated as “mixed choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights advocacy group, while Lowey scored a “fully pro-choice” rating.
Lowey’s reputation as a premier pro-Israel lawmaker also may figure in the calculus of who gets the spot, although she is not making it an issue in her campaign. She has been a leader in securing assistance for Israel and has an unusually strong partnership with the foreign operations subcommittee chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), based in part on their commitment to the Israel-U.S. relationship.
Kaptur is closer to J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group. In January 2009, in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, she said that “the proportionality of Israel’s response to Hamas’ incessant terrorist rocket launches is lamentable.”
Fought said that Kaptur was committed to assistance for Israel, as she was to overall foreign aid. In any case, her bid for the committee’s top Democratic spot was based more on economic issues.
“It’s still about the economy, stupid,” he said, noting that Kaptur opposed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying that it brought job losses — and that she has been able to cobble together allies from both parties in pushing back against such agreements.
Just as Lowey’s emphasis on abortion implies an unstated dig at Kaptur, so does the NAFTA reference seem to undercut Lowey, one of a minority of Democrats who voted for the trade agreement in 1993.
Lowey may have the edge with the leadership; she allowed herself in 2007 to be dissuaded from standing for the committee leadership to make way for since-retired Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), which earned her good will. Additionally, Kaptur has clashed with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, over the health care package that in 2010 was the then-speaker’s signature achievement.
Meanwhile in California, the Sherman-Berman race is already infused with pro-Israel politicking, and Sherman’s declared candidacy for the top Democratic spot on the foreign affairs committee only intensifies that element of the race. Berman, 71, and Sherman, 57, are both Jewish.
Sherman, in a statement to JTA, suggested that his tough postures on sanctioning Iran and supporting Israel were salient to his leadership bid.
“I have the breadth of experience to do the job and have worked tirelessly to help our caucus achieve a majority,” he said. “My record on Israel and on Iran sanctions is well known to all who read JTA reports.”
Berman would not comment for this article. However, the outline of their increasingly bitter race in a suburban Los Angeles district already has seeped into this battle. Sherman’s backers have sought to depict Berman as bound too closely to the Obama administration and averse to aggressively confronting the president on Israel’s behalf. Berman’s defenders have countered that he is more reliable in securing the support and action that Israel needs — most recently the broad Iran sanctions packages — and advances Israel’s interests better as an influential insider.
Sherman, who has been far ahead of Berman in some polls, may not have helped his case by announcing for the committee leadership so early, before the outcome of his House race.
Much of the congressional leadership is rooting for Berman, albeit unofficially, according to a source close to party leaders. Pelosi has been publicly praising Berman, even as she has not made an endorsement in the race. Berman also has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of California’s congressional Democrats.
Engel, who is also an outspoken supporter of Israel, has announced his intention to bid for the top spot if Berman loses to Sherman, although he told JTA that he hopes that does not happen.
“I feel a little awkward, but I’m letting people know I would go for the job. I can’t allow someone who has nothing to lose to talk to people,” he said of Sherman, “and not talk to people.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) is second in seniority among Democrats on the foreign affairs committee, but he is not running for reelection this year. Sherman is fourth in seniority, while Engel is fifth.
Should Berman defeat Sherman, Engel likely would vie to become the Middle East subcommittee’s top Democrat, who is now Ackerman.
If Berman loses to Sherman, the next most senior among Democrats would be Eni Faleomavaega, the delegate from American Samoa who cannot vote in the full House but votes in committee.
The source close to the party’s leaders said that Faleomavaega’s chances for the job, should he bid for it, were virtually nil. Multiple calls to Faleomavaega’s office were not returned.