Prospective Dem Chairmen Fall Toward Liberal Side of Spectrum

If the chips fall right for Democrats and their party seizes control of the House, President Bush's agenda on Capitol Hill would fall into the hands of some of his most dogged opponents.

It's not just would-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, but a boatload of Democrats newly running committees who would determine what legislation gets debated and which programs and agencies get scrutiny.

So who are the chairmen to be?

-- a lawyer with a reputation for making witnesses quiver.

-- a die-hard liberal from New York's Harlem with 35 years in the House.

-- a free-spending progressive from Wausau, Wis.

-- one of the few remaining "Watergate babies" swept into Congress in 1974.

For that to happen, Democrats would need help from voters in November: Right now, Republicans hold 231 of the 435 seats in the House, with 201 Democrats and one independent. Two seats are vacant.

As for those prospective Democratic chairmen, the group is overwhelmingly liberal-leaning.

Only two of 20 earned grades of less than 90 percent on last year's voting records from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action interest group. Half had perfect scores of 100 from the ADA — or would have had it not been for missed votes.

The lawyer is Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the dean of the House and the once and maybe future chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He is a staunch ally of the auto industry and a fearsome inquisitor of bureaucrats and CEOs alike. Dingell, 79, has lost a step in recent years but is among the most respected Democrats.

The liberal with the distinct New York accent is Rep. Charles Rangel, poised to grab the helm of the Ways and Means Committee, which has a sweeping portfolio: taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare and welfare. He has battled Bush's tax cuts every step of the way, opposed the 1996 overhaul of welfare laws, opposed the North American and Central American free trade accords and pushed for a more generous Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Rep. David Obey, the unapologetic liberal from Wisconsin, is eager to retake the gavel of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which holds the reins on government spending. He briefly led the committee in 1994 before the GOP landslide that year awarded control of Congress to Republicans. Obey came to Washington at the height of the Vietnam War; ever since, he has been an ardent opponent of GOP efforts to clamp down of domestic agency budgets that Congress approves each year.

Rep. George Miller of California is one of three still-serving members of the huge class of 1974 that swamped Congress after the Watergate scandal. He is in line to head the Education and the Workforce Committee; he was chairman of the Resources Committee in the early 1990s when it was the Natural Resources Committee. Miller also is an unalloyed liberal, but he proved able to work with Bush in writing the 2002 No Child Left Behind education bill that is up for renewal next year.

For Republicans, the prospect of the House being led by a San Franciscan and so many left-leaning chairmen has supporters in business and Washington's K Street lobbying shops aghast. The switch could mark the demise of Bush's tax cut agenda and would usher into power union allies such as Rangel and Miller.

"The whole issue agenda would change," said GOP lobbyist Jack Howard. "All the businesses and trade associations would find themselves on defense."

The prospect of some of Congress' biggest liberals running committees probably will not be much of an issue in GOP fall campaigns, which typically focus more on local issues, said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.

Former conservative Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas says that regardless of any chairman's personal ideology, he would have to produce legislation that was middle of the road. Even if Democrats win control of the House, it would almost certainly be by a narrow margin in which the balance of power would rest with moderate Democrats.

"There will be very little if any legislation that passes that is to the left of center or very far to the left of center," Stenholm said.

The responsibility for determining the floor schedule probably would fall to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who could advance to the majority leader's post from his current job of minority whip. Hoyer and Pelosi fought a sometimes bitter race five years ago for a leadership post, but seem to have patched up their relationship.

In a potential power switch between the parties, more than an unrelenting string of liberal Democrats are positioned to take over committees.

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who would run the Agriculture Committee, is anti-abortion and as pro-gun as practically anyone in the House. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri is a longtime hawk in line to lead the Armed Services Committee.

Black lawmakers would run major committees.

Besides Rangel, there is Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, in line for the top spot on the Judiciary Committee; Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi on the Homeland Security Committee; and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida at the Intelligence Committee.

Conyers has been accused by former aides of misusing his office by turning them into baby sitters for his children. He is the prime sponsor of a resolution that seeks to investigate grounds for possible impeachment of Bush over the war in Iraq.

Impeachment is hardly the message Democrats want to take to the swing voters expected to decide the outcome of the election.

"Democrats are not about impeachment," Pelosi said last month on NBC's "Meet The Press."

Hastings, a charismatic former federal judge, was impeached and removed from the bench in 1989 for fabricating evidence that secured his acquittal in 1983 on bribery charges.

Republicans award chairmanships based on the evaluation of a leadership committee that takes into account leadership fealty, fundraising prowess and other factors. Democrats would award would-be chairmanships strictly by seniority.