[ HEATHER CAYGLE and BERNIE BECKER| November 29, 2016 |Politico]
The battle is on to be the next top Democrat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Both Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.) announced Tuesday they would seek the post, shortly after the long-time ranking member, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), said that he wouldn’t run for the top job again.
The change at the top of the committee comes as lawmakers are gearing up for looming fights over tax reform and health care next year, and as House Democrats deal with their own internal divisions over a seniority system that has many junior lawmakers feeling bottled up. Levin himself had faced questions in recent years over whether it was time for Democrats to install a younger lawmaker in his position.
Becerra and Neal are already making contrasting pitches to their Democratic colleagues as they seek the ranking member slot, with Becerra plugging himself as a fighter ready to take on President-elect Donald Trump and his agenda. Becerra, 58, is term-limited in his current role as House Democratic Caucus chairman, and has made no secret of looking for another prominent perch once his tenure ends.
“With the White House and Congress in Republican hands, we need a strong, experience and energetic leader who will take the fight for our democratic values on the Ways and Means Committee to the American people,” Becerra wrote in a letter to colleagues Tuesday evening. “Over the years, I have prepared for just such an assignment.”
Neal, who’s generally been more likely to work across the aisle on Ways and Means than Becerra, maintained that he also was better prepared on policy matters such as taxes, Medicare, Social Security and welfare.
“I think that I’ve got a really sound working knowledge of all those issues,” said Neal, who said he just found out the position would be open when he landed in Washington late Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think that’s even in dispute.”
Neal, 67, also noted that he had more seniority on the panel than Becerra — which he acknowledged was something of an ironic point, given that he had unsuccessfully challenged Levin for the ranking member’s slot in 2010. And Neal, who’s also been seen as fairly close to the business community for a Democrat, argued that one of the lessons that Democrats needed to learn from the 2016 election was that the party needed to expand its appeal.
“I can say this with some sense of satisfaction — I think I can walk into a room with organized labor, business, high-tech, you name it, and have an understanding of the issues,” Neal said. “I think that if there’s a lesson that came out of this election, everywhere: The base alone doesn’t do it.”
In a separate letter to colleagues, Levin said that Trump’s recent election convinced him to step aside, both to allow younger House Democrats a chance to progress and to allow Levin to focus on policy issues.
Levin told reporters Tuesday evening that he’d be backing Becerra to be his replacement, saying he was just the leader needed to take on the GOP. The Michigan congressman has been top Democrat on Ways and Means since March 2010, and narrowly turned aside Neal’s challenge in December of that year.
“The Republicans are really trying to tear apart every single thing that we’ve put together, and Xavier has shown the ability to be faithful to our values and find a way to try and implement them effectively,” Levin said.
Still, Neal said that he expected the “substantial majority” of Democrats on the panel to be in his corner.
The Ways and Means Committee is expected to play a key role next year, now that Republicans have full control in Washington for the first time in a decade. Trump and top GOP lawmakers have all said they want to overhaul the tax code and repeal Obamacare, while key Republicans on Capitol Hill have also floated the idea of revamping Medicare.
Levin’s decision to step aside could help ease the simmering tensions among more junior House Democrats, who have long complained that there are few opportunities for ambitious younger members to move up.
Becerra has been in Congress for two decades, and served in House Democratic leadership since 2009 — first as caucus vice-chair and then as chairman.
But term-limited and with no turnover in the top ranks of Democratic leadership — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer have been in control of the caucus for more than a decade—Becerra has had to look elsewhere for advancement.
He was even floated as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton earlier this year and later pitched as a potential Democratic National Committee chairman.
House Democrats have been pushing for a bevy of changes since the party’s Election Day drubbing, prompting Pelosi to announce a handful of new leadership positions and forcing the long-time leader to fend off a challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.
But term limits for committee ranking members is like the third-rail of the Democratic Caucus, and something both Pelosi and Ryan have shown no interest in taking on in their leadership battle.
Levin's departure opens the door for a fresh face on one of the House’s prime committees without members having to litigate the term-limits issue.