A pair of high-profile New Yorkers are jockeying for a prized slot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a competition that could have long-lasting reverberations in the Democratic Caucus and for influential states.
Both Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kathleen Rice are privately angling for one of the few open seats on one of the House’s most powerful committees. But other members of the New York delegation are so far refusing to publicly wade into the battle, meaning the state could get shut out of the slot being vacated by outgoing Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) altogether.
As the Democratic panel that assigns committee slots prepares to make a decision sometime this month, some Democrats have suggested the New York delegation needs to coalesce behind a single candidate. That person could then be put forward in a slate of candidates endorsed by Democratic leaders — virtually guaranteeing that they hold onto a seat for New York.
“There still could be conversations between the two candidates, and if they could come to an agreement and make a proposal, that would be something I’m sure the delegation would listen to,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a senior member of the delegation. “But we’ll see what happens.”
Senior Democrats insist they are still far away from discussing potential slates for exclusive committees, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) continuing to negotiate the ratios for each panel. But that hasn’t stopped both Rice and Ocasio-Cortez from pushing for a spot on the Energy panel now, with both touting the support of the New York delegation, circulating separate letters with their home state’s endorsement.
Ocasio-Cortez, whose district spans parts of the Bronx and Queens, has insisted she alone has the state’s backing.
“I’m the only member to have the full region’s endorsement for New York State,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a brief interview this week. Asked about the state’s support of Rice as well, the freshman Democrat said: “She has a couple signatures but she does not have the region’s endorsement, nor does she have the support of Dean Nadler.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, dean of the delegation, signed a letter supporting Ocasio-Cortez but notably did not sign Rice’s letter. His office, as well as Rice’s office, declined to comment.
Several Democrats privately pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez was the first candidate to declare her intentions to run for the seat, and was the only one to do so at a New York delegation meeting roughly two weeks ago.
In a brief interview last week, Rice, who represents parts of Nassau County on Long Island, confirmed she was vying for the spot but declined to go further.
According to each candidate’s letters obtained by POLITICO, Ocasio-Cortez — who began circulating her draft earlier — secured 15 signatures compared to Rice’s 13, though neither has the unanimous support of their delegation.
Meeks, who sits on the House Steering Committee, said the state delegation has, indeed, thrown its support behind both candidates and said it has not endorsed one candidate over the other.
“We think that given what’s important to New York, it would be great if we could get two more members on Energy and Commerce,” Meeks added.
But the more likely scenario is that neither would get a spot given how competitive it is — more than a dozen Democrats are vying for what will only be two to four open seats with lawmakers from several regions angling for the spots.
So far, most Democrats have declined to weigh in on the race publicly for fear of drawing the ire of either Ocasio-Cortez or Rice. Some members privately worry about giving a more prominent platform to Ocasio-Cortez’s environmental plank — including her controversial “Green New Deal” — but don’t want to invite scrutiny from the New York Democrat and her millions of Twitter followers or potentially even draw a primary challenge.
Rice, meanwhile, has more seniority in the delegation. But, as a vocal Pelosi critic, Rice has made some enemies and was shut out of a much-desired spot on the House Judiciary Committee two years ago. Rice isn’t guaranteed a position on the exclusive Energy and Commerce panel either.
Rice has yet to say how she plans to vote for speaker this time around but has been notably less vocal of her criticism of Pelosi compared to two years ago. With a slimmer House majority and potential absences related to the coronavirus, Rice’s vote could be critical to Pelosi’s whip count for the speakership.
The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which oversees all committee assignments faces a similar conundrum when it comes to Texas, where two members from the delegation — Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia — are both vying for a spot on the Energy and Commerce panel, also likely canceling out the state’s chances of landing a seat.
“It puts us in a difficult situation when you have to pick one colleague over the other colleague,” said senior Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Lawmakers in Texas and New York — two of the largest House delegations — are traditionally able to use their weight to land their members onto influential committees. But in both cases, the states’ delegation is declining to put forward a single name, potentially weakening their hand in the tightly competitive contest for the committee seats.
This year’s contest for the open committee slots has become one of the most competitive to come before the Steering Committee in recent years, according to several senior Democrats on the panel. The seats come with not just a boost in profile within the caucus, but also in their own fundraising. And after last month’s election reshuffled some of the regional power dynamics, Democrats also have a large class of rising sophomores — with many eager to move up the leadership ranks.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has talked to all the members who are interested, according to a person familiar with those conversations. Some senior Democrats on the committee privately would prefer that Steering does not offer the seat to Ocasio-Cortez, whose aggressive style of politics could complicate bipartisan work during the Biden era. Pallone declined to comment on her interest in the panel.
Energy and Commerce has the widest range of jurisdiction of any House panel, giving its members outsize influence on Congress’ most significant legislation. The committee presides over most health policy issues, including drug pricing; national energy policy from nuclear waste to renewable energy; regulation of clean air and safe drinking water; the communications industry; motor vehicle safety and more.
Many lawmakers said their phones have been ringing all weekend by the dozen-plus candidates and their supporters, including Rice. Ocasio-Cortez told POLITICO that she, too, has been talking to members, though several Democratic steering members said they hadn’t fielded a call from her, which some said was surprising given the forceful pitch that candidates typically make for themselves.
“They all have good records, so this will be presented very intensely at the Steering and Policy committee,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who sits on the steering panel.
“We take our work very seriously and we know how important these committee assignments are to members.”