Democrats Organizing to Take Control of House

This will be a fascinating week for people who are students of internal U.S. House of Representatives politics.

In the next five days, both parties will hold organizing caucuses for the next session of Congress – Democrats on Thursday and Republicans on Friday. A series of key decisions will be made on both sides of the aisle, which will affect the personal ambitions of a number of members and the future direction of both parties.

Let’s start with the Republicans. They have just lost control of the House for the first time in 12 years. Their top two leaders – current Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and current Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.-- will both face challengers. Current GOP Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, is not running for re-election to her party leadership position after narrowly escaping defeat in her own district last week.

It is my observation over the years that Republicans are much more willing to depose party leaders after a defeat than Democrats. All House Democratic leaders were re-elected following the party’s historic defeat in 1994. Republicans have been perfectly willing to change leaders when things aren’t going well. I point this out with admiration, not by way of criticism.

That doesn’t mean that Boehner and Blunt won’t survive but no one should be surprised if one or both fall by the wayside.

An interesting side note to all this is that four Texas Republicans may make leadership races—Joe Barton for Republican leader, Pete Sessions for chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), Kay Granger for conference vice chairman and John Carter for conference secretary.

No one should be surprised if all four lose, since House Republicans may have had their fill of Texans in leadership positions after the disastrous Tom DeLay regime. It may be a case of “no Texans need apply.”

The NRCC chairmanship is particularly vital to Republican chances of regaining majority status. Look for an attractive dark horse candidate not currently in the race like Eric Cantor of Virginia or Adam Putnam of Florida.

The Democratic Caucus will have its own share of drama. Steny Hoyer of Marylan, and Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania are both interested in the position of majority leader. Hoyer has the advantage, currently serving as Democratic whip, but leadership fights are unpredictable since they are decided on the basis of a secret ballot.

Also, Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, has taken the unusual step of endorsing one of the two candidates – Murtha who had run her successful campaign for whip against Hoyer earlier in her career.

Another subplot on the Democratic side involves whether Pelosi, as speaker, follows the lead of former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. and puts some of the newly elected freshman Democratic members on key House Committees to help them shore up their re-election chances in 2008. Gingrich did that in 1995 and thus helped some very marginal new members hold their seats.

At stake here are assignments to committees like Appropriations, Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce. There is significant pent-up demand for these key assignments from more senior Democrats who have not been able to move up to these important committees because of a scarcity of available seats while Democrats were in the minority. The assignments are made by the Democratic Steering Committee but the Speaker’s recommendations carry great weight.

Speaker Pelosi will have five vacancies on the powerful Rules Committee (the majority has nine seats on Rules and the minority party only has four). While it is unusual to load up Rules with freshmen because a number of politically tough votes must be taken in committee on a regular basis to make sure that the majority party gets its way in devising floor strategy, it is certainly possible that a freshmen could get one of these coveted seats.

Additionally, Speaker Pelosi may be able to reward more senior members with a Rules assignment if she has to turn them down for Appropriations or Energy and Commerce.

Committee assignments probably won’t be made for several weeks (committee ratios are subject to negotiation with the minority), but Speaker Pelosi may give some indication of her thinking on this important matter soon.

Another key issue to be resolved by House Democrats is whether or not they will continue the practice first implemented by Gingrich of putting a limitation on how long someone may serve as a committee chairman. Republicans placed a three-term limit on chairmanship of a particular committee (though senior members could chair another committee at the end of their three term tenure).

This rule is unpopular on the Democratic side and may have caused some Republicans (like Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas of California) to quit Congress prematurely.

Additionally, Democrats, as the majority party, will implement a new ethics package. At issue is whether or not the House will ban all privately financed foreign trips in the next Congress. Many Democratic members have long participated in fact-finding trips paid for by organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Aspen Institute and oppose a flat ban on all privately financed foreign travel. But travel such as the golf outings to Scotland taken by former Reps. Tom DeLay, R-Texas and Bob Ney, R-Ohio, have focused public attention on this issue.

While the elections are now history, the real fun for political observers is just beginning.

And let me take a moment for a victory lap. I predicted three months ago in a FOX column that House Democrats would pick up 30 seats. This was very close to the final outcome. Also, I predicted in another FOX column that independent Texas candidate for governor Kinky Friedman would run fourth and receive only 8 percent. He did run fourth and got about 12 percent. As they say, close enough for government work.

For complete election coverage, click here to visit's special election section, You Decide 2006.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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