Washington – Rep. Rosa DeLauro is running the toughest race since she first ran for Congress 30 years ago.
No, the fierce competition she’s facing doesn’t come from her efforts at re-election. DeLauro is favored to continue to represent her New Haven-based 3rd District when ballots are counted in the Nov. 3 election, even though her Republican challenger Margaret Streiker is tenacious and has proven successful in raising campaign cash.
The race that is consuming DeLauro right now is the competition for the gavel of the House Appropriations Committee, whose chairman Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is retiring with this Congress.
Democrats like DeLauro are confident their party will hold on to their control of the U.S. House in November’s election and be able to continue to chair all House congressional committees.
The chairmanship DeLauro is seeking one of the most powerful positions in Congress. The leader of the House Appropriations Committee is responsible for more than $1.3 trillion in annual federal discretionary spending. The chairman’s profile has been given a boost as lawmakers approved more than $3 trillion in additional, emergency spending to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although DeLauro is a senior member of the committee, and some say favored to win the chairmanship, she has tough competition from another senior member of the committee who wants the job, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz of Florida.
As of now, Wasserman Schultz chairs the subcommittee that funds military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs. DeLauro is the head of the powerful Labor-HHS-Education panel, responsible for the largest chunk of federal discretionary spending aside from the defense subcommittee. She points out that her panel “touches every aspect of people’s lives from early childhood to their education to Social Security.”
Another contender for the position — considered more of a long shot — is Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who chairs the Energy-Water subcommittee that oversees a smaller slice of funding than the other two panels.
“It’s the most important race in Connecticut,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, of the increasingly heated contest.
Larson said the job would give DeLauro a chance to put her own imprint on federal spending, something that would benefit both the state and the nation.
He heads a group of lawmakers who are “whipping” votes for DeLauro in an election the Democratic caucus is expected to hold at the end of this year.
Every week, Larson and nearly 40 other House Democrats hold a conference call to strategize and report their failings or successes in winning over certain colleagues.
Although Larson believes DeLauro is the frontrunner in the race and said 100 House Democrats have committed to voting for her, he also said “we are taking nothing for granted.”
DeLauro, Wasserman Schultz and Kaptur must seek the support of the House Steering and Policy panel that is influential in picking leaders. That group will vote, behind closed doors, to recommend a candidate. DeLauro has been co-chair of the panel since 2003.
But lawmakers are also expected to request a vote from the full caucus, even if the Steering and Policy panel endorses another member. So the position is up for grabs and will go to the candidate with most support.
DeLauro said she wants the job “because I believe I will be a strong appropriations chair at a time when the country needs a Democrat who reflects our priorities.”
Expected to keep their lock on the U.S. House, Democrats also have a chance of wresting control of the Senate and the White House from the GOP in November.
That means Democratic budget priorities, including paid family leave, more robust federal health benefits and other issues that top DeLauro’s agenda, would have a better chance than ever at becoming a reality.
“We are in the middle of a health and economic crisis that is exposing vast racial inequalities, and we have a real chance to have Democratic control of the House, Senate, and presidency to address these crises — which means we need a strong, effective, proven leader as chair of Appropriations who can bring through good bills,” DeLauro said. “I believe I am that leader.”
She said she is having “one-to-one” talks with House Democrats to persuade them to back her candidacy. She’s also giving Democratic colleagues – and Democratic candidates seeking to unseat GOP incumbents –tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash.
However rival Wasserman Schultz, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been even more generous. According to a campaign spokesman, Wasserman Schultz raised or contributed more than $2.28 million for House Democrats in 2020.
DeLauro is also running on her experience as the second-longest tenured member of the House Appropriations Committee. Kaptur has the most seniority on the panel.
Before she headed the Labor, HHS subcommittee, DeLauro was once chairman of the subcommittee with authority over the budget of the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.
“My previous committee leadership, my current work on the stimulus legislation, and the passage of my $50 billion child care stabilization fund with bipartisan support prove that I can bridge divides and bring members of Congress together to deliver results for working families,” DeLauro said.
Wasserman Schultz is also running on her experience on the Appropriations Committee, and in on the fact that at 53, she is younger than the 77-year-old DeLauro.
“As both a strategic and knowledgeable appropriator known for a strong work ethic, I can bring generational diversity to our caucus committee leadership and usher in needed reforms in the process,” Wasserman Schultz wrote in a “dear colleague” letter to fellow House Democrats.
Kaptur, meanwhile, says she has the most seniority on the appropriations panel and that the House would break a longstanding tradition of promoting through seniority if it chose a less senior candidate as chairman.
Larson, who is rising in the ranks of the House Ways and Means Committee through the seniority system, says it’s an important factor — “but not always.”
DeLauro, meanwhile, has an advantage Wasserman Shultz and Kaptur don’t, and that’s a close relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and outgoing chairman Lowey.
At a recent hearing in her subcommittee, DeLauro said “we were known as the DeLoSis” — DeLauro, Lowey and Pelosi.
“Oftentimes they would see us on the floor and say, ‘What are they scheming?’ And we were scheming,” DeLauro said.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the three women “really formed a particular triumvirate,” especially when it came to appropriations issues.
Wasserman Schultz, however, has had success in pitching new policy ideas, pledging to create an advisory panel within the House Appropriations Committee to address disparities in federal funding and steering federal dollars “towards communities that have suffered the deepest historical inequities and injustices.”
Still, Hudak said “DeLauro is definitely the front runner” in the race, largely because of her relationship with Pelosi.
He also said the three candidates running to head the Appropriations Committee each have very different approaches to their work.
Kaptur is more conservative than the other two candidates and even the Democratic caucus, with its growing number of progressives, as a whole. Wasserman Schultz is noted for her fundraising prowess and DeLauro “is more of a workhorse,” said Hudak, who interned in DeLauro’s office as a college student 20 years ago.
While all three approaches have are useful at different times, “at this moment DeLauro’s approach is gong to help the most,” Hudak said.
Wasserman Schultz’s actions actions while DNC chairman are also a concern to some House Democrats
She was prodded by former President Barack Obama to resign that position at the end of the Democratic National Convention four years ago after WikiLeaks published DNC emails which suggested that her staffers had expressed support for Hillary Clinton in the primary campaigns while criticizing the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Before the leak, Wasserman Schultz had been criticized for halting the Sanders’ campaign’s access to DNC database, rescinding a prior ban on corporate donations and accusing Sanders supporters of violence at the Nevada state convention.
“Debbie Wasserman Shultz carries a lot of baggage from her time as DNC chair,” said University of Connecticut political science professor Ronald Schurin. “And while DeLauro is close to Pelosi and has a long history in the party, she is not a party hack.”